Battle ready Stormers aiming to end URC on a high note
Forwards coach Hlungwani says coaches and players make for a harmonious choir
By LIAM DEL CARME
● The Stormers forwards coach Rito Hlungwani “almost” suggests they are on autopilot.
Such is the depth of understanding and trust between players and coaches that they are able to fly by the seat of their pants, as though by wire.
It partly explains why they have lost just one match at home this season and surged to consecutive United Rugby Championship finals. Next week however they go into the final against the only team to bring them back to terra firma on home soil, Irish giant slayers Munster.
Just as the Stormers have built a fortress in the shadow of Table Mountain, Munster this season have stormed Edinburgh’s castle, climbed Ravenhill in Belfast, signalled their intentions in Cape Town, successfully crossed swords with the Warriors in Glasgow and most tellingly proved the noisiest of neighbours in downing Leinster in Dublin.
Far from the best
Hlungwani admits the Stormers were far from their best in that 26-24 defeat to Munster but says lessons were learnt. This point is perhaps worth dwelling on.
“Afterwards we had to look at how we trained, prepared and how we played that game. Did we do the best we could have?”
He explained that it was “a tricky period” for the Stormers as their commitments on the road eventually caught up with them.
“We played Leinster in Dublin, came back for Harlequins, then went to Exeter and came back for Munster. The travel reduced the time we had to train and recover. We don’t want to make excuses, we simply were not at our best.”
It is also worth noting that their star flyhalf Manie Libbok had a rare off day with the boot that day. Libbok has returned to the straight and narrow since.
“Despite everything, it was a game we could have won. We have an opportunity to rectify that performance,” said Hlungwani about the final.
The collaborative spirit that exists between coaches and players at the Stormers will have to run strong in the build-up. After a long campaign they are easing off time on the training field.
“My challenge is we had a week off,” said the forwards coach. “Two weeks of no sleep ... We have some great leaders in the team: Manie, Marvin (Orie), Kitsie (Steven Kitshoff) and Damian Willemse. They run the team. The team actually runs itself. In that sense we are in a better position than last year.”
Providing flesh to the bones of his argument, he spoke about his relationship with lineout talisman Orie. “The nice thing about Marvin is that when I come with a lineout plan on a Monday he also has a line-out plan. He’s already looked at the game eight times. Now I have to watch the game 20 times just to make sure I can help him. He must never be above me in that sense.
“I then poke holes and look for blind spots. That is the environment we are building. The guys have taken responsibility. Our job as coaches is to fine-tune.”
Orie, who missed the semifinal as a precaution, will be central to the Stormers’ battle plan.
Reliable lineout balls have been hard to come by for the Stormers when he has not been around. When they rule the aerial set piece their maul, another pursuit that Hlungwani holds dear, grows an arm and a leg.
“I want to see teams trying to stop us because that pushes me as a coach to find a different way to do it,” he said about the maul. “Teams should challenge each other and get innovative about it.”
Hlungwani’s path and outlook on coaching, as you may have gathered, is far from ordinary. A quantity surveyor by trade, he seeks truth in numbers.
“The thing with quantity surveying is you learn not to attach emotion. Even though I like connecting with players and enjoy the company of other coaches, there is a strong part in me that knows that everything rotates around numbers. The numbers have to make sense to carry on a certain path. That discipline of keeping time and that everything is calculated I use in balance with the human side of coaching.”
That human touch was shaped in his formative years back in Giyani where his father was a headmaster and choir conductor.
“I started connecting coaching to what I had seen my whole life ... How you communicate with people. With the choir you start with eight people. You try to make everyone sound as one and create one beautiful harmony.
“In coaching it is the same. Have a common goal, work together and listen to what the people next to you are doing.”
Next week Stormers fans will hope their coaches and players sing off the same hymn sheet one more time.
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