The Vodacom Stormers will be hoping to use Saturday’s opening Super 14 fixture against the Vodacom Bulls as the first step towards erasing their long-held reputation for being a team of softies.
New coach Rassie Erasmus, after being in the enemy camp plotting against the Stormers for so long, has a good understanding of the Cape team’s weaknesses as perceived from outside. And apart from bring some much needed structure to the Stormers’ onfield approach, he will also be looking to them to toughen up.
Erasmus denies that it was him who told the story, but there is one doing the rounds that has it that when he was at the Cheetahs preparing for a match against the Stormers or Western Province, he put the Stormers/WP team list up on the board and asked his players to identify the really hard opposition players that needed to be taken special care of.
The legend has it that apart from the irrepressible Schalk Burger, the Cheetahs were unable to put too many other identifying marks on the Stormers/WP team-sheet.
“I don’t know who told you that, I know it definitely wasn’t me,” laughed Erasmus when it was put to him. “But yes, obviously there is an impression in the rest of the country that the Stormers are best when the game is open and wide and becomes more like a sevens contest, and that they are not so good when it is tight and the battle is of a physical nature.”
Erasmus has been working on changing that, and he hopes that the addition of two tight forward imports in the form of Brian Mujati (ex-Lions) and Adriaan Fondse (ex-Bulls) will make a massive difference to the Stormers approach. However, he also says he has been pleasantly surprised by the level of physicality that he has encountered from the Stormers players since he has been working with them in the build-up to this Super 14.
“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. 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 that sometimes the Stormers have just not placed enough consistent focus on this aspect.
“It is all a question of attitude. 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 and who would not back down from anyone.”
Erasmus might be onto something here. Last season the Sharks were surprised by the WP physicality in a Currie Cup match at Newlands, but then watched in shock the following week as they saw the same team almost run away from the Blue Bulls at Loftus.
The draw Erasmus’s team has been handed for the new season will demand that they get up consistently and a lot of questions are set to be answered in the first 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 African 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.”