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Rugby | Vodacom Super Rugby

Robbie Fleck © Gallo Images

Fleck has reason to feel upbeat

The DHL Stormers have returned from their three match Vodacom Super Rugby tour of Australasia confident that the groundwork has been laid for them to mount a strong challenge in the remaining months of the competition.

That might seem odd to anyone who hasn’t watched the Stormers play the three games they lost in Australia and in New Zealand. After all, their record reads three losses in four starts from the season, and that pales in comparison to the record of the Lions, which at the moment is the direct inverse of the Stormers’ record – three wins in four starts.

You need to look at the detail though, and the fact that the Lions have only played on the highveld while the Stormers have already played three games in Australasia is not an insignificant one. They should have won their first tour game against the Waratahs and will kick themselves for not doing so.

The other two games against the Crusaders and the Highlanders weren’t ones they were expected to win, particularly given the crippling injury list they started the tour with and which grew longer once they were on the road. The Stormers played both those teams last year and in both clashes they delivered performances infinitely superior to what they produced in 2017.

Of course, professional sport is about results, and Stormers coach Robbie Fleck knows that. He also knows he cannot be seen to be making excuses. But he is right when he says the problems that tripped his team up, such as the lineouts, are easily identifiable. The improvements that have been made should be as obvious as their failings. At least they should be to those who watched last year’s tour games.

“We do know there is a lot of criticism and we accept that, but we as a group try to block that out as we know how much we have improved. The feeling in New Zealand from the commentators, media and other experts over there was that we were pretty good on tour,” said Fleck.

“We felt we earned the respect of our opponents. That was certainly the impression they gave us after the two New Zealand games. We were much better on this tour at holding onto possession, we created more opportunities, and we know as a group that we are on the edge of turning things around. If we can just convert the opportunities we will be really in the mix and we are confident that will come with a bit of hard work.”

Obviously the Stormers can’t afford more injuries. JD Schickerling, playing in the place of the injured Eben Etzebeth, was proving his pre-season billing as a probable Springbok by June before he tore a pectoral muscle in the last scrum against the Crusaders, and Cobus Wiese, who was the Stormers man of the match in Christchurch, missed the Highlanders game because of injury, as did Pieter-Steph du Toit.

“We know we can't afford more injuries but we have some big players coming back into the mix over the next few weeks. We’ve had a tough draw, with six of our first nine games set to be played away from home, but hopefully later in the competition we will have the necessary confidence and pick up some momentum.”

The Stormers are struggling with a flu bug that has afflicted several players and management members ahead of their home clash with the Blues on Saturday, which is unfortunate as it is a match the Stormers really need to win. However, if they do get through the Newlands match as winners, they will be confident they can beat the Reds in Cape Town to build up some momentum before a tough sequence of away derbies against the Bulls, Lions and Sharks in successive matches.

Winning in Pretoria, Johannesburg and then Durban is going to be a challenging task, but Fleck believes that the tour saw a lot of growth within the squad and it will hold the Stormers in good stead.

“We were definitely better than last year. We had to induct eight new players on tour and there were nine last year. Hopefully next season we won’t have so many injuries and the experience picked up now will count for us. It’s tough to tour when there are so many new players, yet our performances were far better than last year.

“We were very disappointed to lose against the Waratahs. We were way below our best but I thought we were still good enough to win that game. The one period where we really let ourselves down was the first 20 minutes against Crusaders, where they played really well and were able to make use of a strong wind that gave them a telling advantage.

“But in the last 60 minutes of the Crusaders game we were the dominant side. Against the Highlanders we were really competitive but let ourselves down with little mistakes on both attack and defence that cost us the chance of taking a good lead. It was an excellent game and the Highlanders had to play well to beat us.

“Obviously, we need to sort out our lineout. Everyone knows that. But we know we can do that. For the rest it is all about small detail, such as what decisions to make, when to make the final pass when in the attack zone. That we spent more than five minutes inside the Highlanders 22 in the first half of the Dunedin game shows that we are creating and holding onto possession. That is a big step from last year. Now it is just a case of finding a way of sustaining that pressure and making it count.”

Fleck is not talking gobbledygook. The Stormers made strong strides in their offload game across the three matches played overseas and their linespeed on defence is light years better than it was in 2017. They look much better conditioned than last year and the Stormers are also getting profit from their attempts to carry the ball through the middle. Fleck reckons now is the time to start adding some width to that attack to make his team more lethal as an offensive force.

With just a bit of luck, and unfortunately the flu bug that has hit the Stormers does not inspire confidence that their luck is changing for the better, the Stormers could be about to flick the switch that will transform them into the genuine contenders that some of their Kiwi opponents think they should be.


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