CAPE TOWN - Do the Stormers’ Super Rugby struggles stem from a coaching problem?
The 2018 Super Rugby season has been a troublesome one for the Stormers - who have won just three of their eight games, with all five defeats coming away from home.
They’ve only managed wins against the Jaguares - which didn’t come easy - the Blues and the Reds, while they’ve been outclassed by the Waratahs, the Crusaders, the Highlanders, the Bulls and the Lions.
And for a team like the Stormers, that can never be considered good enough. Far from it.
Since Robbie Fleck took over in late 2015 as interim coach after Eddie Jones ditched the Cape side to coach England after about only two weeks in the Cape, the Stormers have made the Super Rugby quarter-finals in both 2016 and 2017 under the former Springbok centre.
In 2016 Stormers went on to the Super Rugby play-offs and were punished 60-21 by the Chiefs at Newlands, a flawed performance which was not at all aided by the fact they had only faced weak Australian opposition in the round-robin stages due to a senseless competition format.
That embarrassing loss sparked Fleck’s desire to upskill his team, and in came Kiwi skills and attack man Paul Feeney.
Since the start of his role as head coach, Fleck has made his intent transforming the formerly defence-first Stormers into a more attack-savvy unit.
And in 2017, after beating the Chiefs with a stunning effort early in the competition and also beating the Blues in the group stages, they met the Chiefs in the quarters again, this time going down 17-11 in a tight battle.
So if you look at that, it seems like there has been progress. And their potential has been evident on the field at times. Heck, sometimes they’ve been outstanding.
But in between the quarter-final horrors of 2016 and the play-off improvements of last year, there has been too much back and forth.
After their match against the Jaguares in Round One this year, their losses to the Crusaders and the Highlanders on their Australasia tour didn’t really come as a surprise. But to lose to a Waratahs side who didn’t exactly boast quality? That cannot be justified. Also, the Stormers were brilliant against the Blues after that tour, and although they beat the Reds, they looked less threatening in the second half.
Their performances against the Bulls and the Lions don’t really need to be explained. And one thing has become almost expected from the Cape side - inconsistency. But why?
We’ve definitely seen more flair and more skills that have been executed better. And given the Stormers’ history, their blueprint under Allister Coetzee, that transition into a more skilful, more attacking team will take time. They’re trying.
But we’ve also seen dominant performances up front one week and that same pack being completely schooled the next. We’ve seen them being manhandled at the breakdowns, and that can’t be put down to a change in playing style.
We’ve seen them shine on attack at times and be way too predictable with ball in hand in other games, especially when they go back to forwards being used as one-off runners. Just like their results, the work they’ve shown on the field hasn’t followed the same rhythm.
The fact the Stormers have been good in between their rough patches suggests the coaching team is doing something right. But I guess you could also question that coaching staff’s influence seeing as they’re not able to have more good than bad weekends.
I think Fleck and co have shown their plan with the Stormers. They’ve shown what they’re able to do. You can’t write them off because the Stormers have lost badly to New Zealand teams...it’s New Zealand. And expecting the Stormers to beat the Kiwis with a style that they practically epitomise after only two years under Fleck isn’t fair.
But you also can’t make excuses for them losing to the likes of the Waratahs and a transforming, less-settled Bulls team. You can’t sugar coat their too-close-for-comfort tussle with the ill-disciplined Jaguares. Or try and justify the fact they fade too often in the second half.
The second half of the competition will say a lot about the Stormers. And if we see the same kind of results, even at Newlands after their away game against the Sharks, then some questions really need to be asked. Until then, let’s see how they emerge from an unpleasant first eight rounds.