Cape Town - It is that time of the year when Newlands season ticket holders will be asking themselves: “To renew or not to renew”. Newlands rugby stadium has traditionally seen the best crowd numbers over the years, but season ticket holders may think twice of renewing their tickets when they take a closer look at what lies ahead in 2016.
The Stormers have been the flagship team for rugby in the Western Cape and were one of the few Super Rugby teams to attract huge crowds to the famous old stadium even though they have never won a title.
They came close in 2010 when they reached the final, only to be beaten by the Bulls in a historic decider at Orlando Stadium in Soweto. They have also made it all the way to two semi-finals and a playoff qualifier under coach Allister Coetzee's reign from 2010 to 2015.
But considering the resources within rugby in the province, that is just not good enough. And Capetonians voted with their feet over the last few years as disillusionment grew with the lack of Super Rugby silverware at Newlands.
Just between 2012 and 2013, the average attendance figure dropped dramatically from 38 123 to 33 545. There are indications that it could be lower in 2016. Even winning the Currie Cup title in 2012 and 2014 has not resulted in a dramatic spike in attendances.
Coetzee could only take them as far as a playoff qualifier in 2015, after a third place on the log as the top South African team, but actually, would've been in an eighth spot if points were the sole deciding factor overall.
In 2016, Cape fans will have less to look forward to than usual at Newlands. A revamped Super Rugby competition has been expanded to 18 teams to accommodate newcomers Southern Kings from Port Elizabeth, Los Jaguares from Argentina and the Sunwolves from Japan.
But the upshot of a complicated new format sees teams from the Africa 1 Conference only playing against Africa 2 and the Australian Conference. That means no New Zealand team will face the Stormers in 2016, home or away - except for a possible playoff.
The Kiwi sides have a massive following in Cape Town due to their attractive brand of attacking rugby, while the historic connection dates back to the apartheid days when black people used to support the All Blacks against the Springboks in protest of the political climate at the time.
That has continued in the modern era, but now those fans - often referred to as the “Cape Crusaders” - won't be making the trip to Newlands either.
And things are looking a bit grim for the Stormers side. A drama-filled off-season followed the 2015 rugby year as director of rugby Gert Smal searched for a new head coach after Coetzee moved on to Japanese club rugby at the end of the Super Rugby season. Smal eventually got his man in Eddie Jones, who had led Japan to a shock victory over the Springboks at the World Cup.
The Stormers hierarchy announced Jones's appointment to great fanfare on the Monday after the Bok result on the Saturday and the Australian arrived in Cape Town in mid-November. He held a press conference where he spoke passionately about wanting the Stormers to play attacking rugby after years of a conservative approach under Coetzee, and the 55-year-old even referred fondly to the iconic Table Mountain as “Table Top Mountain”.
Just a week later, Jones had been lured to take over as the England national team coach after having refuted newspaper reports that he could be ditching the Stormers.
Jones said at the time “don't believe everything you read in the newspapers”, but those reports were proved to be true a few days later, and Jones took an overnight flight to London to sign a four-year deal with the Rugby Football Union (RFU).
Smal then started a new process of head-hunting a coach, and he recommended New Zealander John Mitchell as his preferred candidate to the Stormers board. But it was rejected by the likes of Western Province Rugby Union president Thelo Wakefield, chairman Sam Dube and CEO Rob Wagner on the basis of Mitchell's controversial departures from previous jobs at the Western Force and the Lions.
Wakefield cited a lack of “people skills” as one of the main factors in not opting to appoint Mitchell, a known tough task-master, after WP consulted with former players and management at the Lions.
Instead, the board decided to promote Robbie Fleck from assistant coach to the top job on an interim basis for the 2016 season, with Smal set to play a more hands-on role as well.
But Fleck's only experience of being a head coach was as the WP Under-21 boss in 2015. He led them to the national title, but coaching juniors is very different to managing seasoned Test players such as Schalk Burger.
Stormers fans will also be concerned about Fleck's support staff, with the unheralded former Lions loose forward Russell Winter being appointed as the forwards coach in place of Matt Proudfoot - who joined Coetzee at Japanese club Kobe Steelers - with ex-Springbok Sevens coach Paul Treu in charge of the defence.
On the player front, the Stormers have lost significant figures in 2015 captain Duane Vermeulen (Toulon), prop Steven Kitshoff (Bordeaux), flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis (Montpellier) and lock Ruan Botha (Sharks).
Smal has insisted that the Stormers will try to go back to traditional attacking WP rugby in 2016, but they don't appear to have the personnel to do so.
They have failed to sign a top-class flyhalf, while veteran Jano Vermaak is their supposed answer to the scrumhalf shortcomings. They also lack depth in midfield, where the recent ankle injury to Springbok star Damian de Allende while playing in Japan could keep him out of action until mid-April. Juan de Jongh is the only other experienced centre in the squad who has displayed any form in recent seasons.
Further injuries to senior players such as Burger, Eben Etzebeth, Nizaam Carr, Frans Malherbe and Scarra Ntubeni may scupper the Stormers' title chances, let alone reaching the semi-finals and playing crowd-pleasing rugby.
In addition, an unfashionable Springbok Test will be played at Newlands in 2016, with Ireland running out for the first match of the three-game series on June 11.
So, Cape fans will once again miss out on seeing the All Blacks, who haven't played at Newlands since 2008, when New Zealand beat the Boks 19-0. - African News Agency (ANA)