What started out as slight erosion has now become a fully-fledged sinkhole, the Cape Town based Stormers in South Africa are only one game into their campaign and this is not a one off loss, but a greater indictment as to how ‘you reap what you sow’.
The apathetic showing in their opening round loss to the Bulls is sobering to even the most ardent Stormers fan. Head coach Robbie Fleck has protected his players in the aftermath at the media briefing, like any good coach does, putting it down to an ‘off day’. Whilst that sounds reasonable and even understandable, it rings hollow.
Robbie Fleck is not solely to blame for the Stormers current sorry state of affairs, he was given the job as a backstop in 2016 without any real coaching credentials, Eddie Jones was on the books originally as head coach. Until he was offered the chance to coach England (with endless resources at his disposal, I don’t blame him), Fleck has had no such luxuries. Every administrator, management team and board member share the weight of responsibility for the quagmire the franchise finds itself in over the course of a decade.
The much vaunted defensive system which for three seasons in a row was ranked number one overall in the early 2010’s, is a distant memory. Rassie Erasmus played a part in getting the Stormers back on track but ultimately moved onto greener pastures, namely Munster. Alistair Coetzee ever the pragmatist had players such as Schalk Burger, Jacque Fourie and South Africa’s own magic man Bryan Habana but couldn’t get them any major Super Rugby silverware losing a semifinal at home and a final at a neutral South African venue – Soweto.
The Western Cape is blessed with some of the finest rugby schools in the country and the ‘catchment area’ for talent is arguably unrivalled anywhere else in South Africa. In the town of Paarl alone you have Paul Roos, Paarl Gim and Paarl Boys High to select from (91 Springboks have been produced by these three schools to date). Western Province at the u18 Craven Week are routine winners and the u19 and u21 teams are serial winners of their respective competitions, yet there seems to be a real disconnect between these youngsters with winning mentalities being brought through into the senior setup.
Maladministration, constant coaching changes, bickering and infighting at boardroom level has gotten its cancer into the very bones of Newlands. Theo Wakefield then president of the Western Province Rugby Board seemed to continually survive his poor tenure, any other employee would have been shown the door in the ‘real world’. Just three years ago Wakefield and CEO Paul Zacks placed Western Province Rugby into liquidation, the Union was spared (given a R44 million loan) as a means of insuring the players and staff still had a job to be paid and go do. Wakefield and his board have subsequently and strongly deny that creditors are knocking at the door wanting their pound of flesh. He left at the end of 2018 and now new president Zelt Marais has the unenviable task of trying to steady a sinking ship, however the damage has been largely done.
The Stormers team on the pitch are a reflection of their bosses that run the franchise, like any workplace or organization the feeling generated on the ground comes from the top, the decision makers. Their costly and poorly conceived choices have left a rugby team and Union bereft of any assurity for the future, however what is certain is that the Stormers season in 2019 is only just beginning. But the pain is already being felt and it will get worse before it gets better.