This week brings together two teams seemingly heading in opposite directions. One is sitting in the upper rungs of the ladder, seemingly gathering strength with each passing week. The other appears to be going sideways and faces a difficult rest of the season.
The Force have had a week off after their tough loss against the Tahs and normally you don’t hear much from a team in that situation. It’s fair to say that they and their (former) coach have been all over the rugby press in Australia in the past week and mostly for the wrong reasons. In a season where there have been several disappointing results and a frustrating injury toll, the news doesn’t seem to be getting any better. I would describe myself as utterly gobsmacked when I found out out that Richard Graham was leaving the Force for the Reds. Like many over here in the West, I thought he was here for the long haul. Without dwelling on these events, I think the club has made the right call to release him immediately. These situations tend to go one of two ways: the playing group pulls together and results improve or everything falls apart. I reckon we can all think of several examples of both scenarios over the last few years.
So to the question of the Force actually out on the paddock, their last game was slightly different from the way they have played in other games this season. For once, it was their pack that struggled in the tight stuff and at times in the loose as well. They got turned over several times in the scrum and the Tahs forwards managed to gain an advantage in the rucks and mauls too. The backs looked better than almost any other stage this season and for a period in the second half would have worried the Tahs. It was lapses of concentration that cost them the most in the end, especially Dave Dennis’ try right after half time, as well as some handling errors when half breaks had been made. Frustrating to say the least.
The Stormers, on the other hand, couldn’t be travelling better. They’ve lost only one game all season and have won some titanic struggles at home at their fortress of Newlands, as well as a couple on the road. They are an interesting team in that they aren’t overly laden with Springboks and several of the stars they do have are or have been injured this season. With that said, at the halfway point they are looking every bit the championship contender. The Stormers play a simple game plan that relies on good field position, air tight defence and plenty of big bodies hitting the line at pace with ball in hand. It’s often said that the best way to be is to have a singular game plan that the opposition simply can’t live with. The visitors this week are approaching that situation, in that they don’t radically change their tactics from one week to the next and yet opposition teams seem to have real trouble knocking them off. They do the fundamentals well, are well organised and have strong team discipline. The fact that the results have kept coming in spite of guys coming in out of the line up with injury is testament to this.
If the Force are to be any chance this week, they’ll need to take note of what the Reds did and didn’t do last week at Suncorp. I expect that the Stormers will make it extremely tough for the Force to get any kind of half break on Saturday night, but the Reds did show that with good pick and drive in close, you can at least get them backpedalling a bit. Defences that are running backwards have a tendency to get a little lazy and/or tired and creep offside. Quick ball and hitting the breakdown with numbers will be I think. All of this is easier said than done of course. They’ll also need to not kick aimlessly, like the Reds were guilty of last week. The Stormers back three are very solid and able to drive the ball back into the opposition half or run it back in formation.
Western Force: 1. Pek Cowan 2. Nathan Charles 3. Salesi Ma’afu 4. Toby Lynn 5. Nathan Sharpe 6. Matt Hodgson 7. David Pocock (c) 8. Ben McCalman 9. Brett Sheehan 10. David Harvey 11. Napolioni Nalaga 12. Winston Stanley 13. Nick Cummins 14. Rory Sidey 15. Alfie Mafi
Reserves 16. Elvis Taione 17. Salesi Manu 18. Phoenix Battye 19. Richard Brown 20. Josh Holmes 21. Ben Seymour 22. Samu Wara
Stormers: 15. Joe Pietersen 14. Gerhard van den Heever 13. Bryan Habana 12. Juan de Jongh 11. Danie Poolman 10. Peter Grant 9. Dewaldt Duvenage 8. Nizaam Carr 7. Rynhardt Elstadt 6. Siya Kolisi 5. Andries Bekker (c) 4. De Kock Steenkamp 3. Frans Malherbe 2. Tiaan Liebenberg 1 Steven Kitshoff
Replacements: 16. Scarra Ntubeni 17. Brok Harris 18 Don Armand 19. Deon Fourie 20. Louis Schreuder 21. Burton Francis 22. JP du Plessis.
Date: Saturday, 28 April
Venue: Nib Stadium, Perth
Kick-off: 17:40 WST
Referee: Jaco Peyper
The suffocating Stormers defence will be the difference I think. Defence isn’t as sexy as running the ball or having a monster scrum, but it is a fundamental building block of sustained success for any rugby team. It’s also a good indicator of team attitude and cohesiveness, as it involves every player from 1 to 15. The Stormers have just about the best defensive record in the competition and teams with more attacking firepower than the Force have found it tough to break down.
This won’t be a high scoring game, as that’s not really the Stormers go. They’ll strangle the the Force and keep the score board ticking through the reliable boot of Peter Grant and the occasional try through their back three (watch out for Joe Pietersen).
Stormers by 12.