Stormers are no quick fix

Gert Smal's appointment as director of rugby may not be enough to lift the Stormers out of the waters of mediocrity, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Remember when Brendan Venter first arrived at Saracens? Senior players spat out their dummies. The toys flew out of the cot. Venter proposed radical changes to the structures and personnel, and some of the players weren’t ready to accept this.

These players told anybody who would listen that Venter was bad for the English club. And some of the media even took pity on the players, some of whom were prominent internationals. Few could understand that Venter was initiating a change that the club desperately needed.

We know how that story panned out. Saracens went on to win the Premiership title in 2011, and became regular challengers for the European Cup. Thanks to Venter and the changes he implemented, Saracens was able to build not only a squad, but a culture that would be the envy of teams the world over.

I interviewed John Smit in St Albans in August 2012, when he was still playing for the club. Smit told me that the Saracens blueprint should be implemented at some level in South African rugby. Less than a year later, Smit was the Sharks’ new CEO, Venter was the Sharks’ director of rugby, and the Sharks were following Saracens' lead.

These changes took some time to be accepted. The decision to axe John Plumtree and his assistants was not a popular one in Durban, not among the Sharks senior players, and not among the local media. It was, however, necessary for the Sharks’ growth.

Anybody who would doubt this assertion need only reflect on the Sharks’ successful 2013 Currie Cup campaign, and the more recent showings in the 2014 Vodacom Super Rugby competition.

What does this have to do with the Stormers? Changes are set to be made to the coaching structures. There is still a denial by Allister Coetzee and his assistants that anything is fundamentally wrong, and the players also seem to believe that they would be on course for a Super Rugby title if not for a lengthy list of injuries. This is, of course, a fantasy, and it’s best that the bubble is burst sooner rather than later.

Gert Smal is set to be named the new director of rugby. Coetzee has been doubling as the director of rugby and head coach since Rassie Erasmus resigned in January 2012. It’s hoped that Smal’s appointment will free up Coetzee to focus on the coaching and management of the team.

Are these changes sufficient? Is this the radical change the Stormers need at this point? I don’t think so. In fact, the Stormers bosses look to have swapped one recipe for mediocrity for another.

Few would have expected the Stormers to win the Super Rugby title in 2014. They’ve shown in 2011, 2012, and 2013 that they have the ability to qualify for the play-offs, but not to win the title.

That is on the coaches as much as the players. They haven’t improved since qualifying for the 2010 Super 14 final, a match in which they were taught a lesson in finals rugby by the Bulls.

Unfortunately, it's taken a string of poor results in 2014 for the suits to realise that a shake-up is required. And yet there is talk that the changes to the coaching structures won't be as dramatic as what was witnessed at the Sharks in 2013.

The administration is part of the problem at the Stormers. Erasmus never enjoyed a good relationship with the suits, and famously said that he spent more time fighting the politics in Western Cape rugby than coaching the Stormers. And if somebody as strong as Erasmus couldn’t endure the infighting and incompetence, what hope does Smal have?

Venter certainly has no appetite for it, as least not in a director of rugby role. It’s a shame, as Venter was probably the one man who could effect the changes the Stormers desperately need, at least from a rugby point of view.

Many will hope that I am wrong, that Smal will surprise us all and turn the Stormers around. Many will hope that his history with the franchise (he was at the helm when the Stormers suffered some of their heaviest defeats in 2005) won’t count against him. He’s been involved with the Springboks and Ireland as an assistant coach, and has done well with those teams, but he hasn’t been a head coach for nearly a decade. Many will hope that isn’t a bad sign.

It’s a lot to hope for, and therein is the problem. There is no reason to feel optimistic.

It may have been different if other changes were made, if a crack team of coaches and perhaps a revolutionary new CEO were brought into the mix along with Smal. Then we could talk about real change and possibly a new era for Stormers rugby. Smal coming through on his own? It won’t be enough.

The structures and the personnel require an overhaul similar to what was witnessed at Saracens in 2009 and the Sharks in 2013. Until that happens, the Stormers will always be also-rans.

Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

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