CAPE TOWN - There’s only so many times you can dissect the Stormers’ performances to identify the cause of their increasingly worrying symptoms before you have to narrow it down to a coaching problem. And I think we’ve reached that point.
The Stormers’ season has been far from impressive in 2018, that we all know. But just in case you needed anything to highlight the extent of their struggles, that distasteful display - and ultimately that defeat - against the Sunwolves should be enough to fill you in.
It’s been a long time coming, and the result in Hong Kong was just the climax of a new low for coach Robbie Fleck and his team.
You can use the fact that the match was decided by a late drop goal as an excuse all you want. You can refer to the extremely unpleasant weather conditions. The Sunwolves simply looked far more purposeful on attack than the Stormers. They showcased some wonderful handling skill and kept the ball alive far longer than the Stormers.
I get that Fleck has attempted to take the Stormers from one end of the rugby spectrum to another - from a defence-oriented game to a more expansive, more balanced style.
Fleck has gone overseas to grow his knowledge and speak to top coaches more than once. And as I understand, he’s one of those “first to arrive at the office, last to leave” kind of guys. But this is sport, and nothing matters more than results. And two Super Rugby quarter-finals that resulted in nothing but “some positives to take out of the game” just aren't gonna cut it.
There is absolutely no excuse for a franchise with a talent pool like the one the Stormers boast not to perform.
Again, embarking on a new attacking path takes time to reap results. But Fleck has had almost three years with the Stormers, and while we’ve seen promising displays - like the improvement in their skill execution, some good line speed on defence and overall improvement in terms of attack - we haven’t seen it consistently enough. We’ve also seen those promising spells alternated with absolute cluelessness with ball in hand and errors that just boggle the mind.
Remember the Stormers’ performances against the Chiefs (at Newlands early last year), the Bulls in their return match at Newlands earlier this season and the Blues after they returned to Cape Town from a torrid tour to Australasia?
Those were matches in which the Stormers produced superb performances. So why can’t they do that consistently?
I remember how excited I was about what the Stormers could become when I heard Fleck talking about his plans for the team after being appointed interim coach back in 2015. His talks beamed creativity, it predicted a new philosophy plus a new style that would equal a new, exciting and, importantly, improved team. I bet even some Super Rugby title hopes were awakened after being buried for so long.
While there has been some improvement, it hasn’t been enough.
I’ve tried to be understanding of Fleck’s situation and the fact that coming in and attempting a complete turnaround on a team’s blueprint can never be easy. But we’ve also seen what John Mitchell has done with the Bulls - who were the kings of “traditional strengths” in South African rugby - and how he’s turned them into an attacking unit that has produced play that’s even resulted in their locks being likened to Kiwi second-rowers when it comes to skills. And he did all that in a couple of months.
So it can be done.
At the end of the day, you just need the right coach to do it, and you need that just as much as you need the right guys to recognise and enable that coach. The Stormers need a coach who can manage them, a coach who can help all that talent gel as a unit, and a coach who can bring the best out of the many talented players he has. They need a coach who can add that something extra.
And as much as Fleck should be given credit for trying, the ever-widening cracks are starting to show that he might not be that man.