CAPE TOWN – Often, it's asked where things have gone wrong. But so far, 2017 has been a year in which it has gone right for the Stormers in their Super Rugby aspirations.
A rather humiliating 60-21 quarter-final defeat to New Zealand’s Chiefs in 2016 left the Cape-side with a lot to ponder. That loss left Robbie Fleck and his team with more questions than answers.
One answer for Fleck was to upskill his team in order to match the New Zealand sides at their own game.
Photo: Robbie Fleck, coach of the Stormers during the Stormers training session and press conference at Bellville HPC, Cape Town. Credit: Chris Ricco/BackpagePix
The introduction of former Blues skills coach Paul Feeney from New Zealand has paved the way for a change in the way the team plays.
Feeney joined the team ahead of their pre-season training camps. Another element to put in place with regards to being able to play a high-tempo game is conditioning.
SA Rugby hosted a conditioning indaba with guidelines and standards given to coaches and players in the hope of preparing the players to endure the demands of professional rugby at top international level.
It seems that the Stormers and strength and conditioning coach Stephan du Toit bought into this and he and the team’s work during the off season is paying dividends. Before the Stormers were not able to put in 80-minute performances, but that certainly has changed.
The Stormers haven’t made these changes by ignoring their defence and forward play.
Current defence coach Paul Treu joined the Western Province coaching team in 2014 after his short stint with the Kenyan Sevens team, and before that the Springbok Sevens.
The Stormers were a defensive team during the Allister Coetzee-era but this year they’ve struck a balance between attack and defence. After seven rounds of Super Rugby they are amongst the top six defensive teams, only conceding 126 points.
More impressive however is their points difference, where they are the second best team, only behind the Highlanders.
Former Lions number eight Russell Winter is in charge of the forwards and, perhaps an unsung hero, John Dobson takes control of the breakdown play which has seen a vast improvement for the Stormers this season. This year the Stormers pack have contributed largely to the front, which has enabled the backs to convert into points.
And the forwards have contributed points of their own, scoring 12 of the 35 tries after six matches.
Thrown into the proverbial deep end last year after the sudden departure of Eddie Jones, Robbie Fleck surprised many with his team’s qualification for the playoffs in 2016.
Perhaps stung by that humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chiefs in 2016, Fleck went on a trip overseas following last year’s Super Rugby competition in order to upskill himself as a coach.
He was clearly not afraid to call in some specialist help with the likes of Feeney joining his coaching team, and his player management needs to be commended as well.
The Stormers are a young team, and sometimes that is the best for a young coach to get the team to buy into your ideas.
Fleck has installed a culture and belief within the squad to fight for each other. When listening to Fleck speak about his team, and especially the youngsters that are doing so well, one can’t help but notice that pride he has in is team.
Captain courageous Siya Kolisi also deserves a mention.
Photo: Siya Kolisi of the Stormers during the 2016 Super Rugby Stormers training and press conference at Newlands Stadium. Credit: Backpagepix/Ryan Wilkisky
Again the word young comes to mind, but trust this does not bother Siya or his fellow leaders within the team.
When announced as the captain of the team, Kolisi said he wanted to lead in terms of his performance on the field and hoped the rest would follow.
How better to perform than by scoring three tries so far this season? The contribution of Eben Etzebeth as his vice-captain, leading the team against the Kings in Port Elizabeth, with a man-of-match performance, is commendable. These two have bought into this positive team culture and led the Stormers with aplomb.
The road ahead does not get easier following their undefeated start to their Super Rugby campaign.
The Stormers host the Lions this weekend and then travel to New Zealand for arguably their toughest assignment this season.
Matches against the Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes lie in wait. One thing is for certain, the Cape side will take confidence from the improvements shown in their on-field leadership, coaching, skills and fitness and hope to continue their winning ways.