During a social function last season, one of the coaching staff of another top provincial team summed up the attitude of the rest of South Africa to the Stormers: “Mate, when I look at the Stormers all I see is a bunch of soft c***s!
It was not Rassie Erasmus who said these words, but it was hardly surprising when Erasmus this week, after only the briefest of hesitations, pinpointed physicality as the biggest perceived weakness in the Stormers make-up, and the thing that he has been working hardest at changing in the build-up to the new Super 14 season, writes Gavin Rich in the Cape Argus.
The Stormers start next weekend against the Bulls, who are the Super 14 champions and arguably the most physical team in the competition.
Erasmus agrees that the opener will be a litmus test for a squad he believes may have more robustness about it than he thought, when he was looking in as the coach of the Cheetahs.
“It may be an advantage to have been in the enemy camp before, because I do have a good idea of how the opposition perceive the Stormers, but then I don’t think the previous coaches were unaware of what the biggest Stormers weakness was either,” said Erasmus.
“It is one thing knowing what the weakness is, and another thing rectifying it. I don’t think you have to know a lot about rugby to know that when it gets physical and the game is tight, that is when the Stormers tend to struggle.”
Erasmus, however, says that perceptions can sometimes not be wholly correct, and since he has been working with the Cape players he has been pleasantly surprised at how hard they are.
“That the Stormers players are soft may to some extent have been the perception I arrived with, but it is not something I have noticed in training. It is too easy to form a perception and then accept it as fact. Maybe the problem has been focus.
“I know from my own experiences as a player you would often have a guy that everyone thought was soft, but then if the coach or the players around him said the right thing it would spark him and he would suddenly transform into the meanest bloke around, who was not afraid of anything.”
Erasmus might be onto something here. Last season the Sharks management spoke about how incredulous they were at the physicality the WP team brought to a Currie Cup clash at Newlands that Province won, but then how equally surprising it was to see exactly the same combination “run away” from the Blue Bulls at Loftus the following week.
So maybe Erasmus’ big challenge is not so much to get the Stormers physically primed for the one off, but to get them to do it on a consistent, regular basis. To this end, the draw that Erasmus’ team has been handed for the new season could play into their hands, as everyone will know exactly where they stand after the opening fortnight.
“Everyone is saying the Bulls game is incredibly important, which it is, but that game does not stand on its own. The next week we go to Durban to play the Sharks and then we come back to Newlands to play the Crusaders.
“Not only are those teams all extremely physical, but they were also the number one, two and three finishers from last season.
“In South Africa, rugby teams and individuals get tagged too easily. Something happens, someone speaks about it, and then the whole country believes it. If we can front up in all of those first three games then we will know that this physicality thing is not a problem and we have beaten it.
“At the moment it is hard for me to say for sure whether the perceived weakness remains there or not as I have yet to coach these guys in a big game. But we will know soon because you cannot ask for a more physical start. That is why I am happy with the draw, it is a good opportunity for us to show what we can do.”
When it comes to personnel, Erasmus is convinced that his two tight five imports, Adriaan Fondse and Brian Mujati, will play a key role in transforming the general perception of the Stormers.
Mujati was considered one of the finds of the Super 14 when he played tighthead in an impressive Lions scrummaging unit last season, but Fondse may be an even bigger gain to the Cape franchise. The lock is highly rated in Pretoria, where he was considered the successor to Bakkies Botha.
If you are a forward who is rated in Pretoria, the tight forward factory for the local game, then you have to have something going for you. Fondse is in the Botha mould, and it is hoped that he will rub some of the Bulls attitude off onto his teammates.
“Adriaan is going to be an important player for us, but it is not just him. I have been impressed with the attitude of Francois van der Merwe, who is also in the same mould of lock.
“We can rely on those two to do the Bakkies type of thing, and then we have very athletic locks in Ross Skeate and Andries Bekker to partner them.
“I definitely don’t see lock as an area where we should be found to be short.”
Talking of being caught short, Erasmus doesn’t expect to be, as he feels he has good depth in most positions. The only area of concern is at flyhalf, where Stormers lack depth in terms of experience.
“Peter Grant and Isma-eel Dollie are both highly talented players, but I will be pleased when Tony Brown joins us on our overseas tour. His experience should rub off.”
The timing of the former Highlander, Sharks and All Black pivot’s arrival will depend on how his team fares in the Japanese competition. If they are knocked out early, Brown might be in the Cape before the overseas tour.
Erasmus lost centre Corne Uys to injury in the sole warm-up game, but otherwise he has a fit squad to choose from at the start of the season.
There were doubts over new skipper Jean de Villiers this week as he was nursing a tight hamstring, but Erasmus expects him to be available to lead the Bulls.
“There seems to be concern that we didn’t play enough warm-up games but we have taken plenty of contact in training. The reason I adopted this approach was because of the draw.”Tweet