CAPE TOWN - After yet another defeat away from home, this time against the Sharks, Robbie Fleck’s earlier plan of the Stormers winning their remaining away games and unseating the Lions at the top of the South African Super Rugby conference is dead. There can be no questions about that.
Throughout the first half of the competition, the Stormers coach emphasised the importance of winning away games.
And prior to their 24-17 defeat at Kings Park on Saturday, Fleck was still hopeful that his team could move into the No 1 position in the South African conference, as the log-topping Lions still had their tour to Australasia to survive, and Fleck believed that a fumble or two over there could have given the Stormers - who have two remaining away games - a slim chance of moving to the top.
But now Fleck’s focus has shifted to just cracking a spot in the top eight (they’re currently 12th) by winning their five home fixtures and the two away ones against the Sunwolves and the Jaguares.
“We did well to stay in the fight. But those crucial soft moments from certain individuals let us down, and that’s been the case this whole season. It’s the error rate from key players that’s hurting us at the moment,” Fleck said after the game.
While some individual errors and poor decision-making certainly has played a part in the Stormers’ struggles, it’s not the only thing that has gone wrong. Not by a long shot.
Why haven’t they been able to perform anywhere other than Newlands this season? How can you be so good at home, but so terrible whenever you play away?
Let’s not be under any illusions. The Stormers weren’t faultless at home - they struggled in their opener against the Jaguares and in the second half against the Reds they weren’t as firing as they were in the first, but against the Blues after their tour to Australasia, they were red hot.
So why can’t they do it away?
The game at Kings Park might have been tight, but what the Stormers dished out in that contest was far from inspiring. And so far there have been way more uninspiring than inspiring performances.
Against the Sharks, the Stormers’ scrummaging couldn’t be faulted, they were quite dominant there, and it’s not an area that has been a particular problem for them this season. The lineout, however, was an area where a worry or two popped up again in Durban. But apart from the lineout horrors we saw earlier in the competition, the Stormers’ set-piece work can’t be singled out as the root of all their problems.
There have been a few puzzling selections - like waiting until Round 10 to give Dillyn Leyds a start at fullback, and the continued selection of Pieter-Steph du Toit, the Stormers’ best lock, at blindside flank. Moving him to the back row out of his natural position boggles the mind, he’s needed in the second row, a crucial role.
Some of the forwards’ work has also gone from devastatingly good to not good enough.
And when are we going to see more inventive play? When are the Stormers going to be more attack-savvy? When are aimless box kicks - which have become a serious liability - going to be discouraged?
The Stormers’ troubles under the high ball also seems to be an unresolved problem. And against more clinical teams, they are going to get punished for it, badly.
I get that injuries have put the Stormers in tough situations at times, but they’re not the only team struggling with injuries. Somewhere something’s got to change. And quickly.