It was a building year and the Stormers achieved no more than what was expected
THE Stormers’ 2016 Super Rugby season ended where it should have been expected to end – defeat in the quarter-final stage.
There may have been some ardent Stormers fans who would have been hoping that somehow their team would go all the way, but it wasn’t realistic. This was always going to be a building year, with a young Stormers squad going into the competition boasting a formidable pack but lacking experience at the back.
Their task became a whole lot tougher when the appointed first- choice flyhalf for the season, Robert du Preez, was injured in the second game. It gave an opportunity to JeanLuc du Plessis, but effectively the Stormers were playing with their third-choice flyhalf, and Juan de Jongh, one of the co-captains, was gone for the business end of the competition because of national Sevens commitments.
The Stormers also weren’t helped at the back by the injuries that kept Damian de Allende out of the first half of the season and which arguably prevented him from really regaining the outstanding form of the year before when he did return. Dillyn Leyds was also out injured for most of the campaign, and one of the best off-season buys, Cornal Hendricks, was sadly ruled out of the game with a mystery illness and never did get to wear Stormers colours.
Jano Vermaak, the scrum- half recruit from outside and expected to play first- choice from the start, also played only sporadically because of injury. And like De Jongh, fullback Cheslin Kolbe, so crucial to the Stormers attacking game because of his unpredictability, wasn’t there at the end, also because of Sevens commitments.
Daniel du Plessis and Huw Jones are both great talents, but this was the first season that they really got thrust into the frontline, and Du Plessis is only just out of under-21, as is Leolin Zas and ditto for Brandon Thomson. It shouldn’t really be surprising then that the Chiefs made the Stormers backs look out of their depth with their quick-tempo play last week.
Before the game it was felt the Stormers would have to get more than parity out of the forward battle if they were to come close to winning, and that proved the case. The Stormers did look threatening when they got into attacking positions last week, and on that basis, coach Robbie Fleck may be encouraged, but the bottom line is that while his team scored three tries, the opposition scored eight. If there was one fairly enduring criticism of the Stormers, it was that they too often were passive on defence, and at a critical middle stage of the season they lost their way a bit when it appeared they lacked someone, either in the team or on the coaching staff, that could be the talismanic lifter of their physical intensity.
The loss to the Bulls at Loftus, when they were beaten by a team that boasted little outside of physicality, was an example of the Stormers being too flat and passive.
The loss to the Bulls was one of three in big derby matches, and the Stormers lost both their games against teams from what was considered the stronger of the two African conferences. It might have been an illustration of just how lopsided the conferences were that the Stormers still managed to win their group by some distance. If the Chiefs could put 60 points over the Stormers last week, imagine what they might have done to the Bulls.
Due to the lopsided nature of the competition, with the Stormers only playing Australian teams and being presented with a dream draw, it is hard to really draw a line on their season and decide whether it was a success or a failure. They achieved what they should have been expected to achieve, and no more.
There have arguably been improvements made to their attacking game, but not enough for everyone to be convinced, and perhaps the most depressing note was inadvertently sounded by Fleck when he said afterwards that he was heading overseas in the off-season to learn from Eddie Jones.
It is the right thing to do, and one of the big Fleck strengths, at least on appearance, is that he doesn’t have an ego. If you ask him, he will readily admit that he would like to have gone into the season with Jones, the current England coach, at his side so that he could learn off him. And if not Jones, he would have been happy to work with the man the administrators didn’t want, John Mitchell.
I think Fleck has proved himself a capable head coach and hopefully he will be given the opportunity to continue in that capacity and grow what he started, but the Stormers would have grown more than they have had they boasted someone on their coaching staff like Jones or Mitchell, two men who have actually successfully coached the style of rugby that they aspire to playing.
It isn’t a coincidence that the most successful South African coach when it comes to play an all-inclusive attacking game is a man (Johan Ackermann) who learned from a Kiwi, Mitchell. Given that they have widened the gap on their nearest local rivals, the Stormers, the Lions administrators might be pleased that they succeeded in putting the Stormers off Mitchell. Sadly, the failure to appoint Mitchell, in at least some capacity, meant the Stormers might have marked time these past few months more than they might otherwise have done.