Legacy of mediocrity

The outgoing triumvirate of Stormers coaches should be remembered for their Super Rugby play-off failures rather than their conference and Currie Cup successes, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Allister Coetzee is one of the all-time nice guys of rugby, a coach so many are loath to criticise. A colleague far more articulate than myself once described Coetzee as South African rugby’s answer to the Puss ‘n Boots character from the Shrek movie series. Indeed, Coetzee appears to be protected by the same layers of charm.

After every underwhelming team performance and defeat, the Cape media has turned its angry gaze on the Stormers head coach. That anger has quickly dissipated after said coach has transformed into a cuddly feline with eyes the size of planets. When Coetzee turns on the Puss ’n Boots charm, it's difficult to remain angry with him and, by extension, the Stormers organisation as a whole.

Deflection, of course, has always been Coetzee’s strength. He’s specialised and excelled in man- and media-management since the day he was promoted to the head coach position in 2010. It has won him many friends in Cape rugby circles, and I have no doubt things would have been a lot worse for the Stormers from a public relations point of view if such a likeable character wasn’t in that position.

The image of Coetzee as a loveable character begins to fade when you study his record as head coach over the past six years. Zero Super Rugby titles. Four defeats in five play-off matches. That latter stat can be unpacked further to reflect the extent of the Cape side’s failure. Under Coetzee, the Stormers have lost three out of the four play-offs at Newlands.

Puss ’n Boots was out in full force after the most recent play-off defeat to the Brumbies. The Stormers went down 39-19 at Newlands this past Saturday. It was a record defeat for the Cape side in the play-offs. And yet, Coetzee wrote it all off to a superior performance by the Brumbies ‘on the day’.

Coetzee wriggled past the fact the Brumbies had travelled all the way from Australasia, and really should have been the less physical of the two sides. He worked his way past the Stormers’ 20-point loss in a knockout match at home, as well as the Cape side’s overall play-off record of six defeats in seven games.

Instead, he chose to highlight the three South African conference titles he had won with the Stormers since 2010, as well as the two Currie Cups he’d claimed with Western Province. He cited his transformation records with both the Stormers and WP, which are easily the best in South African rugby over the past few years.

Coetzee felt he and his assistants had grown a great deal as coaches over the past eight years (Coetzee first joined the Stormers as an assistant coach in 2008). He argued he was leaving the Stormers franchise in a better condition than was the case when he first arrived.

This is all well and good until you start to remember that conference and Currie Cup titles are not the measures of success for a franchise as big and well-resourced as the Stormers. If the Currie Cup title was a precursor to Super Rugby glory, the Lions would have backed up their domestic success in 2011 with a Super Rugby crown in 2012 instead of finishing at the bottom of the log.

And does the conference title really mean anything? It certainly didn’t help the Stormers conquer their Australasian counterparts in 2011 and 2012. The Stormers finished top of the South African conference this season, but were statistically the seventh-best team on the overall log (according to log points).

How can Coetzee or anybody in that coaching structure claim to have taken this team forward? The Stormers were losing finalists in 2010, and results in the subsequent years confirm their steady decline. They only qualified for the semi-finals in 2011 and 2012, and then missed out on the play-offs altogether in 2013 and 2014. They made it to the qualifying play-off in 2015, which the optimists will argue is progress in the context of the past three seasons. It is not, however, progress in the context of the past six. The Stormers are worse off now than they were in 2010.

Coetzee will depart for a stint with the Kobelco Steelers in the coming weeks. Assistant coach Matt Proudfoot has also been linked to a Japanese club side. Rob Fleck may remain at the Stormers, but it is not yet known what role he will occupy in future.

While the fracturing of this triumvirate is long overdue, It should also be noted that director of rugby Gert Smal is struggling to find a replacement for Coetzee, as well as two strong assistants who can succeed where their predecessors failed. As disappointing as the Stormers have been under these three, they could be even worse in 2016. Smal will battle to find the coaches with the necessary mettle and nous needed to take this franchise forward.

Photo: Thinus Maritz/Gallo Images

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