Stormers back to square one

While Eddie Jones had a good reason to accept the England head coach post, his premature departure has left the unlucky Stormers in a fix, writes JON CARDINELLI.

One can understand the anger and frustration of the long-suffering Stormers fans. For five years, they’ve watched their team battle through the regular season and then fall at the first play-off hurdle. For five years, the Stormers have been wanting for tactical direction and a heavyweight coach.

The appointment of Jones was viewed as a significant sign of change. Over the past 15 years, Jones has encouraged his teams to play an attacking brand of rugby. He has enjoyed title successes with Australia, the Brumbies and the Springboks. Jones recently steered minnows Japan to three wins at the 2015 World Cup, a record that included a shock victory against the Boks. It was hoped that Jones would give the Stormers what they needed: an injection of new ideas and ultimately a trophy to shout about.

Unfortunately, those hopes have been dashed. Jones has accepted an offer to coach England for the next four years. The Stormers administration is under pressure to secure a like-for-like alternative between now and the start of the 2016 Vodacom Super Rugby season.

Following Jones’s one and only press conference in Cape Town on 12 November, I had a brief word with Western Province director of rugby Gert Smal. He was all smiles. Smal confirmed that he was excited to see how far the Stormers could go with a coach of Jones’s calibre at the helm.

A week later, and Smal’s smile was nowhere to be seen. He told the media how disappointed he was to lose Jones to England. At the same time, both Smal and WP president Thelo Wakefield made it clear that they could not have done more to keep the crack coach in Cape Town. There’s no competing with the pound, and an ambitious coach like Jones was never going to turn down another chance to work with a tier-one Test side and drive for a World Cup title in 2019.

If social media is any indicator, fans believe that Jones should have shown more loyalty to the Stormers. And yet, if one is to think about this unemotionally, if one is to put all parochialism aside and forget the Stormers’ desperate need for a saviour, it becomes clear that Jones’s choice was a no-brainer.

As Smal put it, the 56-year-old Jones wants to a win a World Cup before he retires. And as Jones himself has said, an opportunity to take on the most high-profile coaching job in rugby doesn’t come along every day.

One cannot blame Jones for pursuing that opportunity. The timing, at least from the Stormers’ point of view, is unfortunate.

The Rugby Football Union as well as the England press have long backed Stuart Lancaster. How different things may have been if England progressed to the play-offs of the 2015 World Cup. That may have been enough to save Lancaster’s job. It may have ensured that Jones went through with his plans to revive the Stormers.

But that's not the way things have worked out. England failed to qualify for the play-offs at their own World Cup, and Lancaster was axed. Jones has taken Lancaster's place, and left a void at the Stormers.

Smal is determined to replace Jones with another international coach. New Zealander John Mitchell is a strong contender for the post.

The appointment of Jones was an exciting one in the sense that he brings so much technical nous to the table. However, there was always going to be a question of his ability to deal with traditional South African issues. From 2016 onwards, all six South African Super Rugby franchises will be pushed to include more players of colour. Had Jones stayed, he would have been expected to work within that framework.

Smal needs to find a replacement who meets all the criteria and understands the unique demands of this country. Smal needs to find a coach who is will embrace his vision for the Stormers and work with the existing group of assistant coaches.

The premature departure of Jones also places Smal in a difficult position where he is forced to operate as head coach and director of rugby until a replacement is named. Allister Coetzee battled in that dual role in 2012 and 2013. Smal believes that the structures are already in place and that the coaching staff should cope. Again, it's a very optimistic and hopeful viewpoint.

Smal should be commended for insisting on an experienced foreign coach, somebody who will force the Stormers to think outside the box. That said, it will take time to secure such a coach. The Stormers will go into the 2016 season on the back foot, and all great expectations will need to be tempered.

Photo: Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli