The Stormers' Super Rugby regression will continue unabated in the years ahead if not for decisive intervention, write RYAN VREDE.
Four short years ago they were losing finalists. Just two years ago they topped the log and lost in the semi-final to the Sharks. In 2014 they finished 11th, having lost nine out of 16 matches and, more tellingly, lost any aura of being a formidable opponent.
They've recruited Gert Smal to assist in halting the slide to mediocrity. On the early evidence of his influence, he has only managed to slow it, and even then, not significantly so. Their attack has been terminally crocked, and while they used to be able to boast about their excellent defensive structures, they are now 11 tries worse off than what they were at the end of their tournament last season. A clutch of key players are either injured or on the brink of catastrophic injury (Duane Vermeulen being just one example in the latter category) because of being overplayed. Players like Siya Kolisi and Jaco Taute have stalled in their development. There are gifted youngsters coming through the system but none who will make an immediate impact. The future looks bleak.
It's frightening how far the franchise has slipped in four years. The departure of Rassie Erasmus hastened the decline. He implemented excellent structures on and off the field and cast the vision for a bright future. The void he left hasn't been adequately filled.
The loss of senior players to foreign clubs has been another contributing factor. I appreciate the difficulty in countering foreign contracts, but the Stormers' player retention has been poor, even in the context of that. So too their talent identification in age-group levels and in the senior ranks, the latter seeing average players like Elton Jantjies and Michael Rhodes become Stormers regulars.
Head coach Allister Coetzee will point to an injury list from hell in the period in discussion as a mitigating factor in their decline. However, even sides ravaged in the manner they have been have shown that while it does compromise your ability to win regularly against elite sides, it should not render you a soft target. The Stormers have become just this due to their failure to grow their game. This speaks to the limitations of their coaching staff, and those limitations are significant.
The Western Province Rugby Union has vehemently batted away any questions about the future of its coaching staff, declaring its support despite the franchise finding itself trapped in a maze of mediocrity. Indeed any media criticism of its coaches or the team's performances have been seen as treachery of the highest order. I've heard more than one journalist tell me about taking calls from WP HQ intended to scare them into line. I ignored that call. Seven times. And I expect to ignore another series of calls once this column circulates at Newlands.
They appear happy to marinate in this mediocrity, rejecting outside perspectives on their performance and forecasts of their future. Coetzee looks set to continue in his role indefinitely, when he and his assistants' ongoing value should be seriously assessed. I can't see any objective review process finding them suitable to continue.
A semi-final finish or Currie Cup victory will be pointed to as vindication for sticking with Coetzee and co. Yet finishing as semi-finalists or victors in a competition that has been seriously diluted shouldn't be a measure of any ambitious Super Rugby side. The South African Super Rugby challenge needs a powerful Stormers contribution. At present, it's getting a tame one and will continue to as long as the men in power refuse to take decisive action.
Photo: Ashley Voltman/Gallo Images