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Robbie Fleck and Siya Kolisi © Gallo Images

Opinion: Stormers may need more clarity

The Stormers have a week to reflect on why in his post-match interviews skipper Siya Kolisi is starting to give the impression he is experiencing a Groundhog Day effect where he is reliving the same experience over and over.

Kolisi spoke after his team’s 52-31 defeat to the Lions at Emirates Airlines Park about the frustration that comes with making good plans each week and then failing to execute them. The flanker said he felt he was saying the same thing over and over.

Certainly, the mistakes made in Johannesburg were redolent of where it went wrong in Pretoria seven days earlier and coach Robbie Fleck probably knew he was delivering understatement when at the post-match presser he accurately fingered the areas that need most work before the Stormers return from their bye to play a must win away derby against the Sharks.

“Defensively we need to be better, we can’t leak eight tries. The breakdown needs to be better,” said Fleck.

The problem is that these areas of concern are not new. It felt like watching the Stormers get thrashed by the Lions that there might be some chickens coming home to roost for there have been question marks over the Stormers defence ever since Jacques Nienaber left the union and it is a long time since the Stormers have deployed a specialist ball scavenging openside flanker.

Kolisi wears the No 6 for the Stormers and has come in for some criticism since the game. He did look lost at Emirates Airlines Park, but is he playing the role that suits his strength?

Talking of roles within the team/squad environment, the most penetrating question directed at Fleck at the post-match presser – I wasn’t there but was sent the audio - was one he didn’t give a definitive answer to.

Asked if one of the reasons the Stormers plans aren’t coming together was because of the confusing mix of designation between two assistant coaches, Fleck responded that it was too early to say that.

The specifics in question are the following: Paul Treu, who was the Stormers defence coach last year, is now in charge of defence and attack at first phase; Paul Feeney, previously listed as the skills coach and originally from the Blues in New Zealand, is in charge of both defence and attack once the ball goes beyond third phase.

That seemed like a complicated plan and fuel for a potential flash-point within the management group when it was first explained to the media in January. It ceased to be a point of interest when the Stormers won two games at Newlands after their tour but it should perhaps start to be scrutinised more closely after two successive away derbies where the Stormers have looked disorganised both on attack and on defence.

The Johannesburg game was in some ways a microcosm for how the season has gone so far for frustrated Stormers fans – there were periods when it looked like the team had the potential to dominate the Lions but every time they started imposing themselves and looked like coming back they gave it away by conceding a soft try.

Commentators often talk about defence being a strength that the Stormers pride themselves on but that is an observation that might be a good few years out of date. When the Stormers decided to change their identity in 2013 away from what was ushered in when Rassie Erasmus took up the coaching reins in 2008, the frugal and physical defensive system that had helped the Stormers to top two finishes in 2010, 2011 and 2012 was the first casualty.

There was skilful and clever sleight of hand in the try that the Kwagga Smith scored just before halftime to conflate the scoreline to unmanageable proportions, but it was a try that the Stormers should have prevented the Lions from scoring. There were several of those in both halves, including the first brilliant five pointer scored by Madosh Tambwe that set the tone for the match.

There were breakdowns in the system that cost them big time in the first half of their second tour match in Christchurch. The Stormers were strong later in the game and might have won were it not for the early errors that contributed to a big first half deficit. Against the Highlanders a week later there were further defensive mistakes that enabled the hosts to score soft tries that turned what should have been a close game into a comfortable win for the Highlanders.

Conceding what could be described as soft tries might be just something that should be accepted as coming with the territory against New Zealand teams that are brimming with X-factor players. The Sharks conceded two that cost them dearly against the Hurricanes a few days ago.

But too often try scoring against the Stormers is made to look too easy and too often there appear to be breakdowns in the system and not just individual error. Too often the Stormers go into denial when they are questioned about the reasons why so many five pointers scored by opposition teams look like they were gifted.

Are the players in the Stormers camp clearer about what each assistant coach is responsible for than those outside the group are? You would think the answer to that should be obvious but given how disorganised the Stormers are starting to look, you do wonder. Fleck’s response that it’s too early to tell whether the mix in the designations given to Treu and Feeney is part of the problem wasn’t definitive enough to inspire confidence.

Fleck is not just being hopeful when he says that it is not too late to challenge the Lions for conference honours. One of the trends of the more competitive nature of the revamped Super Rugby format is that away wins have become a bonus. The Stormers haven’t lost at home yet. They will also be welcoming back several injured stalwarts just as their extended home run starts.

The Stormers look no less disorganised now than the Sharks did two weeks ago, and the Durban team has shown that miraculous transformations are possible. The Stormers have shown glimpses of their potential.

But that potential won’t be realised if the Stormers aren’t honest in their mid-season appraisal. There are few coaches who are as clear and understandable as Fleck is when he speaks. Perhaps that clarity needs to be transferred to the playing group and role designation if the Cape fans are going to be spared more frustration.


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