The first warning came in the early hours. North Harbour was the venue for the Bulls’ first tour match against the Blues. It was also the first time a South African side had played against a New Zealand side this year. The Blues have been the Kiwi side that has struggled the most over the past two seasons and the Pretoria team needed to go well against them to confirm the new dawn some of us feel might be rising in our rugby.
It didn’t happen. Forget the fact the scores were level at halftime. The Blues always had the edge, they always had dominance, and it was always just a case for them of getting across the chalk and opening a lead. The Blues won with an alarming degree of comfort against a Bulls team that was rated as potential South African flagbearers at the start of the season.
Stormers coach Fleck should have experienced contradictory emotions. It was a good result for the Stormers. The Bulls are the team in Africa Conference 1 that should come closest to challenging the Stormers' supremacy in the group and they have now dropped three games.
The Stormers by contrast are flying after Saturday with four wins in four starts and they have a comfortable buffer over both the Bulls and the Cheetahs. And ultimately one of the foibles of the weird Super Rugby format is that the Stormers only have to ensure they win more games against the Kiwi teams than the Bulls do in order for them to qualify for the play-offs. On the evidence of Saturday, that might mean just one win.
But Fleck will also know what’s just around the corner for his team, and the signs that came out of the North Harbour were worrying ones - his men are going to have to be on top of all aspects of their game if they stand a chance of being properly competitive in the five successive matches against Kiwi teams.
And that’s where the other alarm bells started clanging so loudly in Singapore - if that defensive effort was what we can expect from them against New Zealand sides, they are going to be annihilated to the extent they were when they were hammered by the Chiefs in last year’s Newlands play-off.
The defence has been a potential Stormers problem for a while now. Yes the Stormers are scoring tries, but they are also conceding a lot of tries. The Sunwolves are an unpredictable team that can test the best defences, but on Saturday they scored several tries that were down to poor defence from their opponents.
With matches against the Cheetahs and the Lions to come before the New Zealand challenge arrives, the Stormers have a chance to work out their defensive issues. Both those South African sides play a style of rugby that will ensure the Stormers’ defensive system against a wide game will be subject to a proper examination.
Having said all that, however, there were several outstanding aspects of the Stormers game in Singapore, their willingness to change tactics and be more direct with the forwards being one of them. The in-studio comments experts said at halftime that the poor Stormers defence might cost them the game, but my take at that point was that the tide had already shifted in the Stormers’ direction once they had scored a try off a move that consisted of only one passes even though it originated from their own 22.
The way that halfbacks Dewaldt Duvenage and Robert du Preez took control and ensured they played to different strengths after halftime was another massive plus going forward, and while the injuries are concerning, the way they are testing the depth available to the Stormers is a huge plus. If the Stormers do play against the Kiwi sides with second or third choice players, at least those players will have some recent Super Rugby playing experience behind them.
Unfortunately I won’t be with you - or at least not on this forum anyway - to see if my fears and hopes for the Stormers going forward will be realised, for this is my last column for the Weekend Argus.
In my current freelance capacity it has been a journey that started 14 years ago, in the year that the Springboks won the Tri-Nations in Jake White’s first season in charge. That had been after a break of three seasons from when I had left the position of The Argus and Independent Group’s chief rugby writer, so my association with this newspaper really goes back to 1994, when I moved to Cape Town from Durban.
It’s been an enjoyable journey and as I am one of those old school rugby writers who sees the criticism as part of the job and an indication that at least people are reading you, I’ve enjoyed every minute and thank every reader who has read this column regularly over the years. Who knows, maybe I will be back, but until then look after yourselves.