Stormers’ regression is complete

The Stormers' 34-10 loss to the Lions was their biggest defeat since 2007. As was the case in that watershed season, there could be more humiliation to come, writes JON CARDINELLI.

Jean de Villiers’s comments at Saturday’s post-match interview were damning. The Stormers captain didn’t waste any time in describing the performance as ‘disgusting’. He accused his charges of not possessing the necessary pride and desire in the jersey.

I was with De Villiers up to that point, but he got it wrong when he assigned all the blame to the men on the field.

It was a gutless showing by the men in blue, and they will have to take responsibility for that. However, if attitude reflects leadership, then it's not only the Stormers' senior players who need to be held accountable, but the men in the coaches' box as well.

De Villiers said that there would be more questions than answers after an abject performance at Ellis Park. My first question would be: ‘How did we not see this coming?’

The Stormers have failed to evolve since making the 2010 Super Rugby final, for reasons that have been detailed at length in this column over the past four seasons. After the 25-17 defeat to the Bulls in Soweto, coach Allister Coetzee promised that the Stormers would improve their kicking game and attack before the 2011 season. It’s a promise he has continued to make in 2011, 2012, and 2013.

Let’s just say that Coetzee won’t be remembered in Cape rugby circles as 'Mr Delivery'.

My major criticism of the Stormers is that they have not built on the excellent structures put in place by Rassie Erasmus in 2008. Erasmus brought experts like Jacques Nienaber to Cape Town and transformed the Stormers’ defence into the best unit in the competition. He developed a pack that would be feared and respected for their physicality. He made the Stormers a team to be proud of, no small feat considering they were a laughing stock in 2006 and 2007.

Coetzee took the reins from Erasmus in 2010, and did nothing but maintain the status quo. Initially, that seemed to be enough as the Stormers still managed to qualify for the play-offs in 2011 and 2012. But then they fell short of the top-six objective in 2013, and their stagnation was made patent. They began to regress, and there isn’t a bigger example of that regression than their most recent loss to the Lions at Ellis Park.

The Stormers haven’t suffered a defeat by more than nine points since the 29-10 semi-final loss to the Crusaders in 2011

Another pertinent question for the Stormers after that match: 'If you don’t have physicality, desire, and defence, then what exactly do you have?'

These are the qualities that have defined the team for the past six seasons. The Stormers have often offset a lack of innovation with a determination and bloody-mindedness more typical of a Test side than a regional team. Losing that, what does this current side possess?

At the end of a poor 2013 campaign, WPRFU president Thelo Wakefield said that there was no danger of the coaching staff being axed. It spoke volumes for the prevailing mediocrity at the Stormers HQ.

And yet, I wonder how long Wakefield can continue to protect Coetzee and company. In recent years, the top brass has been content so long as the Stormers have pushed for a top-six place. But if they start to lose badly and drop down the log, heads will have to roll.

The Stormers pride themselves on their defence, and that they conceded 34 points against what is effectively a no-name Lions side is a damning indictment.

The Stormers haven’t suffered a defeat by more than nine points since the 29-10 semi-final loss to the Crusaders in 2011. And you need to go all the way back to 2007 for a losing margin in excess of 24 points.

Kobus van der Merwe’s side began that season with a 27-9 loss to the Cheetahs. They lost two of their first three matches, which were played in South Africa, and then lost three out of five on their overseas tour. This included a 36-11 thrashing at the hands of the Crusaders.

It was around this time that administrators were flown to Australasia to meet with the coaches and players. Somehow Van der Merwe retained his job for the remainder of the tour, and the season.

Even catastrophic losses to the Bulls (49-12 at Loftus Versfeld) and Sharks (36-10 at Newlands) were not enough to force the change. It was only when Van der Merwe’s Western Province lost to Boland in a Currie Cup match that Van der Merwe was shown the door.

The optimists will denounce the comparison between the side of 2007 and that of 2014. But there’s no denying that there are problems in the current set-up, and that the result this past Saturday could not be the exception this season, but the rule.

The Hurricanes showed pride and tenacity in their loss to the Sharks, and will push the Stormers close this Friday at Newlands. Even if the Stormers manage to bounce back this weekend, they will then need to negotiate an overseas tour schedule that sees them facing the Crusaders, Chiefs, Brumbies and Reds, all of whom qualified for last year's play-offs.

The Stormers needed to win and win well against the Lions to give themselves a fighting chance in this season's campaign. They’re now firmly on the back foot, and may be knocked to the canvas by the time their tour has concluded.

Change was needed in 2007, and looking back, it was probably a good thing that the Stormers struggled to such an extent. It forced the administrators to realise that something wasn't working.

Perhaps I’m the one being optimistic when I say the administrators will come to their senses and bullet the coaching staff after their inevitable failure Down Under. Maybe that will only happen post-season.

What is certain is that the Stormers will struggle to progress in their current guise, and that whether there is change or not, 2014 will be remembered as an annus horribilis for the Cape side.

Having begun the season with a 34-10 defeat to the weakest team in the tournament, some might say it already is.

Photo: Getty Images

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Jon Cardinelli