Stormers don't have halfbacks to challenge in Super Rugby
Cape Town - The Stormers will never win Super Rugby until they have the best halfback combination in the tournament and a functioning lineout. It is worth repeating that the only thing man learns from history is that man does not learn.
And the Stormers coaching staff, over two decades, still haven't learned.
If we look at the history of Super Rugby, every single successful campaign is consistent in the quality of who has been playing at No 9 or No 10, and the most dominant title winners have had a combination of a 9 and 10 that in the year of success were the Test team combination and rated either the best in the world or in the top two international combinations.
The Auckland Blues of 1996 and 1997 were blessed with an All Blacks pack and Carlos Spencer at flyhalf. The Crusaders, who took over the mantle from the Blues in the late 1990s and early 2000s had Justin Marshall (at scrumhalf) and Andrew Mehrtens (at flyhalf). The Brumbies title winners had George Gregan and Stephen Larkham as their halfbacks. The Crusaders, post Marshall and Mehrtens, had the game’s best ever No 10 in Dan Carter, with 2011 World Cup-winning scrumhalf Andy Ellis on his inside at No 9.
The Reds, in their solitary success in 2011, had Wallabies Will Genia and Quade Cooper as their halfbacks. The Chiefs, in winning back to back titles, were inspired by the All Blacks flyhalf Aaron Cruden.
The Bulls had the world’s best scrumhalf Fourie du Preez partnered by the Springbok flyhalf Morne Steyn during their three title successes and they also had the most dominant lineout locking duo (of that era and possibly ever) in Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha.
The Highlanders had Aaron Smith at No 9 and an All Blacks flyhalf at No 10, the Hurricanes had the world’s player of the year Beauden Barrett at flyhalf and on his inside a current All Black at No 9 and, in the year that the Waratahs won for the first time, the incumbent Wallabies halfbacks of Nick Phipps and Bernard Foley were at the heart of their success.
In 2017, the Crusaders made history in being the first overseas team to travel to South Africa and win the final when they beat the Lions at Ellis Park. The victory was based on the forward effort led by All Blacks lineout specialist Sam Whitelock and Kieran Read and the impressive Richie Mo’unga, who would be picked for the All Blacks because of his form in the 2017 title championship campaign.
There is an undoubted trend as to the most vital cogs of a championship-winning squad, and until the Stormers invest in a world class 9 or 10, or a proven Test halfback combination, they will win nothing.
Damian Willemse is going to be a special player but the jury is still out as to whether 10 or 15 is his best position. He is also still 19 years-old and if he is to be influential for any Stormers championship hopes in the future then he has to have the proven track record of a world class No 9 on his inside.
Of the South African contenders, the Lions have the closest to Super Rugby's historical title-winning halfback formula in Elton Jantjes and Ross Cronje. They also have the kind of pack strength associated with title winners.
I do fear 2017 was their biggest chance to win the title for the first time. They had the near perfect draw, a pack that was as good as any in the competition’s history and they were playing at home, with momentum and with Jantjies in the form of his life.
Then they lost Kwagga Smith to a red card before halftime and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Lions have started brilliantly this season, with the pack powerful and Janjties again potent in his presence. But for me they have to host a final to win it because of the quality of the No 10s and lineout of New Zealand’s strongest challengers the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders.
The Sharks and Bulls have good possibilities at flyhalf in Robert du Preez and Handre Pollard, but currently they're not more than possibilities and there is nothing probable about their influence on a winning championship. Also, neither is playing in a team at the moment remotely good enough to win the title.
The Sharks and Bulls will do well to win 50 percent of their matches this year, the Lions remain South Africa's only realistic option for the title and you can write off the Stormers.
I thought the Sharks would be South Africa's best team, but this thought has proved embarrassing. The Lions still rule in the Republic.
As for the Stormers, you don’t win in Christchurch against the champion Crusaders with an inferior and stuttering lineout, and you don’t win with a wing starting at flyhalf and a journeyman second stringer closing out your game at flyhalf.
The Stormers have never commanded authority and presence in their halfbacks in the history of the competition.
And until they do through the right recruitment, they will never win the tournament, let alone big matches away from home.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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