There was an undeniable element of irony to reports over the weekend about the coaching changes set to take place at the Stormers, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
In the opening weekend of Vodacom Super Rugby 2019 the Stormers were hammered 40-3 by the Vodacom Bulls. The Cape-based side looked hapless, hopeless, and the backlash was brutal. If there is one thing that rings true about armchair critics in South African sport, it’s that they are a merciless bunch, with very short memories.
To borrow a boxing analogy, there is generally no sign of a sporting retreat to their corner to wait out the 10-count. Instead, social media will often erupt with a barrage of continued blows when a victim is knocked down. If there’s any doubt about that, just ask the Proteas, who went from princes to pariahs in the space of their 2-0 Test series loss to Sri Lanka.
On 16 February, Robbie Fleck was the man who had little option but to take it on the chin. After seasons of inconsistent performances from the Stormers, fans are understandably gatvol.
The 2019 pre-season was already filled with controversy as reports of political infighting, power struggles and emergency meetings emerged, and so it went on at a franchise already beset by well-publicised financial woes. Then came the annihilation at Loftus and social media erupted, inevitably.
It’s all good and well, that’s the nature of the beast. Fleck must go. Now. That was the general public sentiment. At the post-match press conference in Pretoria, the coach fronted up to the media on his own, and in the days to follow had little option but to continue wearing the metaphorical body blows that rained down.
It’s become clear that Fleck’s time as Stormers coach is at an end. And he’s made no secret of it either: ‘There is no pressure on my shoulders this year,’ he commented in the lead-up to the season opener. ‘This is the last year of my contract and that’s the way I see it.’
Yet, after one heavy loss to the Bulls, there were those calling for the Stormers to immediately cut ties with Fleck. What I found more thought-provoking were the thoughts of a former top Springbok a few days after that result.
As we chatted about the nature of the result at Loftus, he admitted that, sadly, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Fleck fired if the Stormers lost another four or five games in succession.
However, he also made the point that it was completely unjust for only one man working at the coalface to bear all the criticism and front up first in the firing line.
The unasked questions were this. Where is the accountability for the background administrators who have been in positions of power amid a financial crisis that ultimately saw WP’s professional arm liquidated?
What about the bungling and mismanagement that led to experienced Boks such as Schalk Brits and Duane Vermeulen rather finding homes at the Bulls?
Are results being fairly contextualised at a franchise struggling to recruit and retain players, with no big signings having been made in recent memory?
It’s also been largely forgotten that Fleck has been doing an ambulance job since 2016. That year was meant to be the bright new dawn of the Eddie Jones era, before he abruptly jetted off to England.
At the time, director of rugby Gert Smal remained clear about his desire to see what value and new ideals a ‘foreign’ coach could add to the Stormers, and he lined up former All Blacks coach John Mitchell next for a move to the Cape.
This move was ultimately blocked by WP president Thelo Wakefield, the same man who told Vermeulen that they would rather invest in their youth at a time when the Bok No 8 was still uncontracted ahead of this season.
The long and short of it is that Fleck was boosted up from U21 coach to the Stormers top job, and the rest is history. His first season in charge was decent enough, and in 2017 they again made the quarter-finals, but went no further.
Last year was a real struggle, though, and then a team in trouble were whipped by the Bulls. Fleck’s time will soon be up, but the irony is that the Stormers have since rebounded to record gutsy wins over the far more fancied Lions and Sharks.
By the looks of it, Currie Cup coach John Dobson will take over the reins from Fleck. That’s all fine and well. Barring some miraculous charge to the Super Rugby title this year, the Stormers’ results over the past four seasons have not inspired enough confidence.
Fleck will soon make his exit, and many of the merciless armchair critics will probably cheer ‘good riddance’. All the while, numerous unaccountable, largely ‘faceless’ administrators will remain out of the public eye, without ever having to answer for the background bungling that’s also been significantly to blame for sending a once-proud franchise into troubled waters.
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