The Stormers have shown yet again exactly how to beat New Zealand sides.
The Highlanders play classical New Zealand rugby; a style that is almost entirely focussed on the breakdowns. Personally, I’ve been much impressed by the Highlanders structure, commitment and tidiness at the breakdowns since Jamie Joseph took over as coach in 2011.
They (the Highlanders) commit numbers to the tackle ball and drive over in unison creating pressure with their ability to force the opponent on the back foot with relentless presence, pressure and dominance of the trenches. On defence this dominance of the breakdowns -with superior numbers and structure- create either turnover ball or provide slow and poor ball for the attacking team. On attack they pull the defenders in by punching holes in the midfield with their loose forwards charging in bent over fashion into channels 1, 2 and 3 just to recycle and repeat the process until they create fast front foot ball. From this base they send the ball either wide using long passes and decoy runners or snipe around the fringes.
The Stormers simply took them on at the breakdowns forcing them back at each and every collision countering the Highlanders core strategy in no uncertain terms.
On defence the Stormers rushed-up in a line and made sure they tackle either on or behind the advantage line relying on each individual to do his part in driving the ball carrier backwards or to turn the bal carrier. Turning the ball carrier slows the forward drive down mostly because the ball carrier can’t leg pump anymore but also because the supportive incoming ruckers need to check their lines of entry. Part of this turning-strategy is also to keep the ball carrier on his feet; not forcing him to the ground before he has been turned. An additional benefit of this turning-strategy is that it prevents offloads because to turn the opponent you need to tackle in on the opponents arms and lock the ball in and of course by turning the ball carrier you close down the offload channel. This tackle strategy allowed the Stormers to commit less players -rarely committed more than 3 players- to the tackle. In occasion where they did need to commit more than 2 players the tacklers were in most instances on their feet and thereby able to quickly fan-out and take-up new position in the defensive line.
In essence they did not try and win turnovers at every tackle but rather focussed on keeping the defensive line intact by pushing the ball carrier back and by fanning out. They only went for the turnovers when it was really on; clearly considering it more important to force the attacker backwards than trying to contest for the ball on the ground.
It is an approach that makes perfect sense once you start to think about it. It reduces the risk of getting penalised or to get pulled into the rucks at the tackle and it stops the attackers from getting front foot ball. Furthermore the attackers are due to eventually spill the ball -going into contact- or to drop passes if they are constantly driven back at the collisions.
This strategy saw the Stormers stifle virtually every Highlander charge into the midfield which as a consequence provided poor recycled ball to the halfbacks culminating in poor/wild passing and dropped passes. The Stormers tries resulted from this pressure.
The Stormers also put the Highlanders under pressure in the scrums and line-outs making sure that their opponents receive mostly poor ball. The defensive approach described above is not new to the Stormers game as they did much of the same thing last year. What is new nevertheless is the Stormers improved srummaging ability and the contributions of the backs at the rucks.
The Stormers have yet again shown that presence, pressure and powerful tackling at the breakdown is the name of the game when you play New Zealand sides.
It’s a hard grind and not flashy but still the best way to beat the Kiwi teams.