CAPE TOWN – Let’s be frank: few people thought that the Stormers would be Super Rugby title contenders in 2018.
But the best-supported franchise in the tournament have the most loyal fans you could ever wish for (where would you find 20 000-plus people coming back weekly year after year, only to be disappointed again?), so hope springs eternal.
And with good reason, too. The Western Cape, and not Grey College, is the nursery of South African rugby. Across all races and communities, from the Cape Flats to the townships and plush Boland-based schools lie the finest young rugby players in the country, if not the world.
Yet, the Stormers haven’t won a Super Rugby title.
But that is a story for another day.
Why have they won just three out of eight this year? To break it down, Robbie Fleck’s team have had three significant shortcomings – poor selection, a lack of grunt upfront and a shaky defence.
Why did it take until Thursday for Fleck to realise that Dillyn Leyds’ best position is fullback?
“I think that Dillyn brings something different for us for this weekend. I think in terms of him being on the wing, he’s probably been out of the game a little bit, and we need him to be more in the game and to get his hands on the ball.
“I guess in the position of 15 he’ll be able to do that, which helps us in how we want to play.”
I guess the penny has finally dropped for the former Springbok centre.
SP Marais had some bright moments last year, but has yet to regain that form and has been hampered by injury.
What also rankled was the fact that after eventually handing flyhalf Damian Willemse the goal-kicking duties for the Blues game, Fleck gave it back to Marais against the Lions at Ellis Park.
In the three games in between, Willemse produced a 100 percent display by slotting seven out of seven against the Blues, four out of five in the Reds game and three out of five against the Bulls.
Willemse had earned the responsibility after being held back in last year’s Currie Cup.
As the flyhalf who pulls the strings, he needs to be in charge all the time – including with goal-kicks and in general play. It has also been disconcerting to see forwards get in the way and catch passes from the scrumhalf when it should be Willemse making those decisions.
That leads me nicely to my second gripe with the Stormers – where is the mongrel in the pack?
Steven Kitshoff and Wilco Louw were feared across the country and had even made the Bok team together last year, but they haven’t found that fire once more in the scrums and tight-loose.
Another contributing factor is Pieter-Steph du Toit, who is a lock and not a flank, no matter how well he’s played at No 7 in certain games.
Having Du Toit at No 5 is especially vital in the absence of Springbok captain Eben Etzebeth, and in addition, the forwards have missed hooker Bongi Mbonambi.
It’s exciting to see Sikhumbuzo Notshe finally getting a start against the Sharks, but he should’ve been playing all along – at blindside flank.
But that doesn’t excuse some off-colour performances from captain Siya Kolisi and No 8 Nizaam Carr – although the latter’s mitigating factor is that he played club rugby in England in the off-season and probably needed to be rested earlier.
Perhaps coming off the bench against the Sharks at Kings Park will reignite the spark in Carr, and the inspiration needs to come from the skipper himself, who has admitted in post-match interviews that he has not been at his best.
The defensive work has also been iffy, with too many missed one-on-one tackles and not enough of the rushed defence that worked a charm against the Blues.
Yes, the Stormers have had their fair share of injuries as well, most notably at scrumhalf, with both Jano Vermaak and Dewaldt Duvenage missing too many games together.
The Sharks are also hurting after that somewhat unexpected thrashing at the hands of the Bulls at Kings Park, so they will be up for it.
And there will be Springbok duels galore on show today.
But who wants it the most? With eight league games left, just how desperate are the Stormers to pull themselves together and produce a famous win in Durban?
We’ll find out at 5.15pm…