History may well repeat itself if the Stormers head into the 2019 Super Rugby tournament with the same coaching staff and players, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Every January, I bump into the same Western Province Rugby official at the first Stormers press conference of the season.
‘I’ve got a good feeling about the Stormers this year,’ he tells me with complete conviction. ‘They had a lot of injuries last season. This year will be different, though. You wait and see.’
Every July for the past eight seasons, I’ve listened to the excuses that have followed the team’s premature exit from the tournament. The head coach has blamed everyone but himself for the Stormers’ failure to progress.
Injuries, poor officiating, and just plain bad luck have cost the Cape franchise a place on the Super Rugby throne. Allegations that the coaching team has not prepared the side for the tactical realities of the tournament and that the franchise as a whole hasn’t contracted the right players have been fiercely denied.
So here we are, eight years down the line after the Stormers’ appearance in the 2010 Super Rugby final. The Cape franchise has finished the 2018 season with six wins and 10 losses. They currently rank 11th in the overall standings and fourth in the South African conference.
That could change next week if the Bulls – who have their own problems – obtain one or more log points in their game against the Lions in Johannesburg next week. The Bulls could climb up to fourth in the conference, a scenario that will see the Stormers winning the South African wooden spoon and recording their worst overall finish (12th) in 23 years of Super Rugby.
In the past, criticism of the Stormers has centred on the team’s lack of mettle and tactical prowess in playoff games. This year, however, the Stormers’ shocking regular-season showings – they slumped to historic losses to the Sunwolves in Hong Kong and the Jaguares in Argentina, as well as three straight defeats in Australasia – have resulted in them missing out on the knockouts for the first time since 2014.
Robbie Fleck was asked to do an ambulance job after Eddie Jones’ short term ended and the move to appoint former All Blacks coach John Mitchell was blocked in late 2015. In a sense, one could not blame him entirely for a 2016 season that ended, as Stormers seasons usually do, in a playoff defeat.
That said, the stats show how Fleck has failed to take the team forward in subsequent years. The Stormers won the same number of matches (10) during the 2017 regular season, and went on to lose another home playoff. This year, the Stormers recorded a pathetic six-from-16 return.
Defence has been a perennial problem since Rassie Erasmus, and subsequently, defence coach Jacques Nienaber, departed the franchise. After conceding 274 points and 28 tries in 2016, the Stormers leaked 436 points and as many as 61 tries in 2017.
This season – which has witnessed a significant change to the competition structure in that all South African teams play Australian and New Zealand sides during the conference phase – the Cape franchise conceded 423 points and 56 tries.
Only four teams conceded more points and tries in 2018. Needless to say, the Bulls, Blues, Reds and Sunwolves aren’t going to be challenging for the title any time soon.
How about that supposed saving grace, that much-hyped attack that some believe should discourage fans and critics from looking at the actual results?
The Stormers scored 390 points and 46 tries across their 16 games in 2018. They were the least effective attacking team in the South African conference. Based on those numbers, how can anyone argue that the Stormers are heading in the right direction or that those in charge deserve a little faith?
There will be a review of the season in the coming weeks. The Stormers can’t finish higher than 11th – which would equal their worst final placing, in 1996, 2006 and 2014 – and may end as low as 12th for the first time. At any other franchise, that record and that final log finish would be cause for sweeping changes as well as a frank admission that things, as they are, simply aren’t working.
Do the powers that be have what it takes to effect such important changes, though?
The union’s financial problems may prevent it from firing Fleck – who has another year to run on his contract – and signing a big-name coach with the ability to address the issues. The situation at the union, that is the state of the finances and that of the actual team, will also keep top players away.
Fleck was asked about the 2019 Super Rugby season after the recent win against the Sharks. The game marked the Cape franchise’s last fixture of the year.
‘We’ve got the squad and the management team to take this team back to the top,’ he stated, albeit with little conviction.
There was a lot of talk about injury setbacks, bad luck and execution rather than strategy letting the side down. Fleck said that wins against the Waratahs, Lions (at Newlands) and the Sunwolves – the Stormers lost narrowly in those matches – may have been enough to earn the side a playoff place.
The Stormers are not the only team that’s been hit by injuries, though. The top-ranked Crusaders have been without All Blacks captain Kieran Read for most of the season, while a number of other stars have been forced to sit out due to injuries or the All Blacks resting policy.
The standard of officiating has been exceptionally poor in 2018, and every team is likely to have a gripe regarding a few calls that have gone against them.
It’s been eight years since the Stormers appeared in the final, and six since they last featured in the semi-finals. There’s been no progress on the field over the past three seasons. To be fair, the off-field issues have certainly hampered the team’s cause.
Will anything change? I’ll probably see the same WP official at the first press conference of 2019. I’ll listen to the same pre-season hype. Six months later, I’ll hear the same list of excuses.
What’s it going to take to break this cycle of mediocrity? That is the question that should be asked in the coming review.
Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images