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Robbie Fleck © Gallo Images

REVIEW: a look back at the Stormers’ season

In looking back at the DHL Stormers’ 2018 Super Rugby campaign there should be something that immediately strikes you about the wins column - all of the positive results were achieved at Newlands.

While the Stormers floundered in away games, they did win six out of eight at home. And the games they lost were close ones. The Chiefs edged home in a tight contest mainly because of a penalty try that tipped the scales their way, and the Lions would probably have been beaten had it not been for the red carding of Stormers wing Raymond Rhule.

As it was, the Stormers still nearly won the Lions game playing with 14 men, and Lions coach Swys de Bruin admitted afterwards that his team were fortunate. Fate had conspired against the hosts.

The relevance of looking at the Stormers’ home record is that it tells you that when the Stormers are up for it, when their adrenaline is pumping, when they have the motivation of a passionate home crowd behind them, they are a pretty formidable unit.

As coach Robbie Fleck pointed out after the Sharks game, however, even in the home fixtures the Stormers have produced performances that you could consider patchy. Against the Sharks they were 21-9 ahead after a dominant first half but then had to hang on in the middle stages of the second half. Against the Bulls they were comfortably ahead early in the game but then the Bulls were allowed to come back and ditto the Lions and, long before that, the Jaguares.

“We seem to struggle to put 80 minute performances and that (the inconsistency) has been the theme of the season,” lamented Fleck.

The coach would probably admit that what his team lacks is killer instinct. There was a game right at the beginning of the season that the Stormers lost that they shouldn’t have, and a different result might have put them on course for a much different outcome from their campaign. The reference is to the first match against the Waratahs, where on a few occasions the Stormers looked like they might be set to take control but then relinquished their momentum by giving away soft points.

They ended up losing to a late try that came off a line-out overthrow which itself followed on from a sequence of mistakes that conspired in the end to gift the Waratahs the result. The Stormers had beaten the Jaguares in Cape Town in the opening round and a win in their first tour match would have set them up nicely for the New Zealand leg that followed.

A win in Sydney would have at least have ensured that the worst situation the Stormers could be in after their tour would be two wins in four games from the season to that point. As it turned out it was three losses in four starts, and they were on the back foot, particularly as they were soon to set off on a three match sequence of difficult away derbies.

The Stormers’ concerns about the draw were well documented from the beginning. Not only was the first half of their season particularly tough, they also didn’t have a bye scheduled until the competition was halfway completed. Their second bye was scheduled for this weekend, the end of the competition, which can hardly be classified as a rest as their campaign is over.

Fleck tried hard not to complain but sometimes he couldn’t help himself, and it would be difficult to argue against his contention that often his team didn’t get the rub of the green. That wasn’t just from referees and TMOs, such as when their dominant scrum wasn’t rewarded and instead the Sharks received a penalty at a critical stage of the Durban game in April, but also just the way the season lined up.

For instance, will any team ever again be expected to play a Super Rugby game in the middle of the day in humid Hong Kong? You could argue it was the same for both teams, but the Sunwolves would be more used to humidity after playing so often in Singapore, and it showed towards the end of the game. Several Stormers players ended up suffering heat-stroke and the bottom line was that the game was turned into a lottery that it might not otherwise have been.

But the Stormers also conspired against themselves and only have themselves to blame for some of the soft moments that prevented them from attaining momentum, both within games and in the season as a whole. An example was their slow start at Loftus. The Stormers coaches spoke all week about how important it was to blunt the Bulls’ fast start. So what happened? The Bulls made a rollicking start, only for the Stormers to come back well in the middle of the match. They looked like they had momentum and were wresting control of the game, only for them to concede a soft try and follow it up with a yellow card for forward kingpin Pieter-Steph du Toit. Game, set and match! That was the story of the Stormers’ season right there.

They were caught out early in their match against the Crusaders in Christchurch and had conceded 31 points by halftime, but they came back strongly in the second half and the Crusaders’ forwards were subjected to what for them was a rare examination. So perhaps the worst performance of the year was the one against the Lions.

That was a day where the ball definitely bounced for the hosts, and the Lions captain Franco Mostert admitted as much in the post-match interview, but the Stormers were also let down by their “softness” as repeatedly they threatened to fight back only to give it away again with lamentable mistakes and even worse defending.

Their defence was better towards the end of the season but should still be an area of concern. Their finishing was good against the Sharks but generally it hasn’t been. As Fleck says, there was a lot of great phase play during the course of the season without reward.

But the biggest, most telling concern might well be the handling errors that frequently stunted their promise. At the start of 2017 the gains made through the acquisition of a Kiwi skills coach in Paul Feeney were obvious. They won six games in a row at the start of last year’s competition, highlighted by a high quality win over the Chiefs, and at that point the uplift in the core skills was remarkable.

They regressed in 2018 in that department, and it may have been because a decision was made to focus on something different in the most recent pre-season. Feeney always said that repetition made perfect when it came to development of skills. By not retaining that focus, the chance for further progress was lost.

Perhaps the Stormers weren’t helped by their own over-complication, which was headed by the strange decision to mix up the designations of skills coach Feeney and defence coach Paul Treu.

Treu, the former Blitzbok head coach, took charge of attack in the first three phases and then defence beyond that, and Feeney took charge of defence in the first three phases and then attack beyond that. Or was it the other way around? That is the point. It was so confusing, and although Treu volunteered at a press conference that there were no rifts between the coaches, it is understood that the confusion, and the murky lines when it came to who was responsible for what, led to several flash-points, particularly after the overseas tour.

At the time it should have been becoming clear to outsiders that the Stormers needed more clarity, that they were playing like a team that was receiving mixed messages and had no clear identity. The smart money should be on Fleck, should he survive, reverting to a more basic and uncomplicated management structure next year.

Mention of whether Fleck will survive or not brings up another point - the expectation is that he should, for Feeney was right when he pointed out last week that there is a three year plan in place, with next year being the culmination of it.

But the question we need to ask is where Gert Smal stands in all of this. The former Stormers head coach, Ireland assistant coach and member of the Springbok World Cup winning management was recruited a few years ago to be the executive director of rugby at Western Province, meaning he should be in charge of all rugby related matters and that it should be his expertise that is drawn on when it comes to the hiring and firing of coaches.

The speculation over Fleck’s future, which was started by elected officials with their media comments earlier in the season, created unnecessary extra external distracting noise. The model that was sold to the media when Smal was recruited painted the directorship as a position that would provide a buffer between the officials, the coaches and the players.

The shift from what should have been expected was made when Smal was overruled when he recommended that John Mitchell take over as head coach in 2015, but some clarity needs to provided on who is responsible for what and which voice it is we should be listening to.

Where does the buck stop? The director of rugby should be the man with his head on the block when things go wrong on the playing field but it would be hard to criticise Smal given the confusion over the extent of his power.

On the playing side, what is clear is that some clever recruitment is needed going forward. The decision to lure Raymond Rhule to Cape Town was odd considering the question marks over his defence that arose during the last international season, but the Stormers could do with a big name signing at the back, something similar to what Rassie Erasmus did in 2010 when he recruited Jacque Fourie and Bryan Habana.

The depth at flyhalf will depend on the pace at which Damian Willemse develops and whether or not Jean-Luc du Plessis ever makes a proper recovery from the hip/groin problems that have plagued him over the past two years. The Stormers had planned to bring in New Zealander Stephen Donald to help develop Willemse in the same way that Tony Brown did Butch James at the Sharks 12 years ago, and perhaps that is not a bad idea.

Willemse played fullback for WP in the 2017 Currie Cup final and he could continue his apprenticeship from that position and dovetail with an experienced international flyhalf, thus killing several birds with one stone. That though is if WP can afford it (they lost out on Donald because they couldn’t), which is probably the million dollar question, not only for them, but for all the South African franchises going forward.

It may sound a little crude and ugly to state it thus, but to some extent in modern times trophies need to be bought, meaning that there needs to be investment in enough depth to have capable back-up in every position. No South African team is going to challenge for the Super Rugby trophy until that happens, and there is no denying the Stormers were held back by injuries in 2018, which is something that unfortunately just comes with the territory in this most arduous and demanding of competitions.

What the Stormers do have though is a powerful pack and impressive depth at forward, so with a couple of tweaks to the off-season programme, meaning a return to the skill drills that saw the Stormers off to such a flying start to 2017, and some beefing up at the back both in terms of experience and perhaps in physical stature, they could well be real contenders next year.

It is the third year of the three year plan, so the Cape rugby faithful should expect nothing less. Transferring their away form to away venues would be a good start.


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