The Stormers’ poor run under coach Robbie Fleck can be linked to a dire defensive record as well as a flawed overall approach, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The Stormers went down 24-17 to the Sharks in Durban last Saturday. The result marked the Cape franchise’s sixth-consecutive away defeat and saw them finishing round 10 of the tournament at the bottom of the South African conference standings.
Long-suffering fans might call it a typical performance by Fleck’s charges. The Stormers produced a few inspired touches on attack, missed a host of tackles – as many as 25 – and then lost their composure in the closing stages of the contest.
So it was last Saturday, and so it has been for the better part of three seasons.
The Stormers haven’t been good enough in 2018, as their record of three wins in nine matches confirms. One could argue that they have suffered significant injury setbacks. That said, one also needs to consider how they fared in the preceding two seasons and why they keep falling short.
As things stand, Fleck has guided the Stormers to a total of 23 wins in 41 games – a mediocre win record of 56%. Fleck was a last-minute appointment in 2015 after the preferred candidate Eddie Jones pursued a head-coaching opportunity with England. The move to recruit John Mitchell – who is now with the Bulls – was blocked by Western Province president Thelo Wakefield.
While the administration can’t be accused of doing the franchise many favours, Fleck and his coaching staff must take some responsibility for the team’s lack of progress since 2016. The Stormers have won 79% of their home matches during this period, with two of their four losses at Newlands coming in playoff fixtures. The Cape side has won just 38% of its matches on the road.
There have been times when they have dazzled and brought fans around South Africa to their feet. Who could forget that try in a regular-season game against the Chiefs last year, where Dillyn Leyds threw an outrageous offload to set up SP Marais for a memorable five-pointer?
Unfortunately, these moments of attacking precision have been too few and far between. What’s more, the drive to play a more attacking brand has impacted on the side’s defence and ultimately its results.
Consider the best teams on show in the 2017 regular season. The Lions, Crusaders and Hurricanes all managed to strike a balance between attack and defence.
All three of these teams scored more than 500 points across the conference stage. All three were among the best defensive sides in that they conceded relatively few tries and points.
The Stormers were right up there in terms of their attack. Fleck’s charges scored 64 tries across 15 conference-stage games, the fourth-most in the tournament.
They were at the opposite end of the spectrum for tries conceded, though, with as many as 61 leaked. Only the Cheetahs, Sunwolves, Waratahs and Rebels conceded more tries than the Stormers in that 18-team tournament.
Earlier this year, I asked Fleck if the Stormers had addressed their defensive issues in the pre-season. Did they intend to emulate the Lions, Crusaders or the Hurricanes, teams that valued a balanced approach and evidently had the means to contend for the title?
I pointed out that the Stormers finished 2017 with one of the worst defensive records in the tournament. Fleck responded by asking – rhetorically – how many tries the Stormers had scored in last year’s competition. He seemed comforted by the fact that the Stormers had scored more tries (64) than they had conceded (61).
Nine games later, however, and the Stormers are battling in both departments. No South African team has scored fewer tries in this year’s tournament.
The Stormers have conceded more tries (40) and points (280) than any other team – bar the Sunwolves. It’s little wonder that they have no try-scoring bonus points to speak of. Nowadays, Super Rugby teams are awarded a bonus point when they score three tries more than an opponent. Defence is as important as attack with regards to the accumulation of log points.
It’s hard to believe that the Stormers were once the leading defensive side in the tournament. Back in 2010, with defence guru Jacques Nienaber in tow, the Stormers conceded 17 tries and 171 points in 13 league matches.
They beat all five New Zealand franchises that season – a record that included a 33-21 win over the Blues in Auckland and a 49-15 hammering of the Chiefs in Hamilton. They finished second on the 14-team log – the Super Rugby tournament boasted a tougher round-robin format in those days – and went on to face the Bulls in the final. They were a force to be reckoned with.
That the Stormers needed to improve in the wake of the loss to the Bulls in the 2010 final was plain to see. Unfortunately, in the ensuing eight seasons, the coaches have placed an emphasis on the attack at the expense of the tactical kicking and defence.
Some of the decisions taken – be it the snubbing of Mitchell or the failure to recruit players who can lend more balance to the approach – have only served to dig the franchise into a deeper hole.
Fleck has spoken about standing up in the remaining fixtures and fighting for a place in the 2018 playoffs. However, given what we’ve witnessed over the past nine games, one cannot see this Stormers side featuring at the business end of the tournament.
Fleck and his coaching staff have already presided over two quarter-final losses – both of those at Newlands. Another premature exit from the tournament could well mark the end of what’s been a mediocre tenure.
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