Quo Vadis, Stormers?
As the middle of the Super Rugby season passes us, and the final stretches of the competition loom, another season kicks off.
It is the season of speculation.
Speculation about coaches and their coaching futures.
When results are poor, when teams are not performing, when coaching contracts are due for renegotiation, the speculation kicks into high gear.
Over in New Zealand the future of Tana Umaga as coach of the Blues is in doubt. His contract expires at the end of the season, and the Blues have to make a decision about his future, and the future of the Blues.
The Blues have been woeful, in anybody’s language, and if that language happens to have a New Zealand accent, then their results are as close to a national disaster as rugby can get.
We are told that a decision about Umaga’s future will be made very soon, a matter of weeks rather than in a month or two.
That was the message from Blues chief executive Michael Redman on Tuesday in Auckland.
Redman said the side’s run of losses made it harder to qualify for the play-offs and because of that speculation about Umaga’s future has started to grow.
We know that the appointment of head coaches for the New Zealand franchises is a joint decision between the franchise board and New Zealand Rugby, a system designed to nurture, protect and develop the game in New Zealand while fostering continuity of styles, and coaching staff.
It is a system that works well.
We also know that there are changes in the offing at the Hurricanes, but we already know John Plumtree is taking over there. Colin Cooper, Scott Robertson and Aaron Mauger are firmly in their jobs too. The New Zealand system is working, and continuity is guaranteed.
Over in Australia there has not been much talk about the future of the current crop of coaches. Some, like Brad Throne, Dan McKellar, and Dave Wessels are very recent appointments and they still have time to run on their contracts. The Waratahs’ Daryl Gibson’s coaching contract was up for discussion at the end of a woeful 2017, and he was given another year to sort out the team. So far, in Australian terms, he has succeeded, although the lack of results against the top teams from outside the country may still end his career at the ‘Tahs.
Over in South Africa there is one coach who must be a bit nervous about his future. Really nervous!
Let’s begin by examining the background to this coach’s problems.
The South African rugby world is vastly different to that of New Zealand. Whereas all the members of the New Zealand Rugby Union work with one common purpose in mind; the success of the national team, the All Blacks, is paramount in everyone’s thinking, the South Africans are different.
The board of South African rugby is fractious, at best, with the smaller unions calling the shots, often to the detriment of the Big Four who generate the cash on which those smaller unions survive. The lesser unions dominate the numbers at board level, and their own parochial interests frequently take precedence over the interests of the national team, or even national competitive structures. They certainly put their own well-being ahead of that of the Big Four unions in the country.
Witness the degradation of the Currie Cup competition. Long the envy of every rugby country in the world, the Currie Cup was the premier domestic competition in rugby, anywhere. The principle of strength versus strength was rigorously applied and only the best rugby unions in the country participated. The second tier “B” Division provided a competitive structure for all the teams that did not make it into the Currie Cup “A” Division. The promotion/relegation system allowed for the best of the “B” Division to attempt to unseat the worst of the “A” Division.
And then the rugby politicians of the modern era got involved.
Lesser unions insisted that they wanted to play in the “A” Division, no matter what their results were like on the playing fields. A team like the EP Kings were included in the “A” Division, simply because they were the host union to the misbegotten Kings Super rugby franchise. This despite their not being able to finish in the top three of the “B” Division!
Strange competition structures and systems were introduced, tried, and discarded, including a system where ALL the unions in South Africa competed in the first round of the competition, but somehow some of the competing teams were guaranteed a place in the final “Premier” weeks of the competition, no matter what their results in the initial rounds of the competition! (Once again, the Kings….)
The fractious nature of South African rugby’s administration, coupled to a host of officials and employees with their own agendas and interests at heart, translates into a national body that does not offer much assistance to the professional franchises when it comes to the selection and appointment of coaches.
In fact, they often interfere with the franchise level decision making process.
When Allister Coetzee’s time was up at the Stormers, the franchise recruited a certain Eddie Jones to take his place. Many welcomed the appointment, as Jones is considered something of a rugby guru, and he would bring a whole new way of thinking to the game in South Africa.
The excitement was short-lived. Jones spent just two weeks in Cape Town before he hastily left the country for England and the more glamorous job of coaching their national side.
This left the Stormers in a bit of a quandary, a season loomed, and they had no coach!
A solution presented itself, right on their doorstep. John Mitchell was available, and interested.
In stepped the rugby politicians. Oregan Hoskens and Kevin de Klerk issued dire warnings about John Mitchell, muddy waters churned, and Thelo Wakefield, the boss of Western Province Rugby supported them. John Mitchell was not welcome.
And so, Allister Coetzee’s assistant, Robbie Fleck was asked to take over the Stormers on an interim basis, while the franchise and the union sought a qualified, full time, coach. Somehow, nobody was ever recruited to take the Head Coach job, and at the end of 2015 Robbie Fleck was given the job on a fulltime basis.
And it is that self-same Robbie Fleck who must be a little worried about his future as the Stormers coach.
Robbie Fleck’s record as the Stormers coach is not great. Yes, he managed to guide the team to two consecutive quarter finals, in 2016, and again in 2017. But that is not the whole story. 2018 has been something of a disaster so far, and the Stormers chances of making it to another quarterfinal seem to be over.
One can provide all manner of excuses for the Stormers woes in 2018. Injuries and a truly horrid fixture list, with more away games than home games, are both very valid excuses. Yet they must be considered together with the overall picture, and Fleck’s record as the Stormer’s guide and mentor.
Since Fleck took over the reins as coach, the Stormers have won 23 games in 41 starts. That is a winning record of 56%, which is simply mediocre, at best.
Their record on a home and away basis is simply terrible. They win 79% of their home games, and a paltry 38% of their away games!
How can a team, loaded with so many stars, and so many potential stars, consistently underperform away from home? How can a team that is involved in two of the most epic rugby matches of the 2017 season, both at home to the visiting Chiefs, produce a run of such poor rugby results away from home?
How can a team that sometimes produces some of the most spectacular rugby possible, slip down the slope to performances as uninspiring as last weekend’s game against the Sharks?
(This is not a problem unique to the Stormers, the Bulls away record might be a bit better in 2018, but in 2016 and 2017 they were almost as bad as the Sunwolves!)
Where, or how, are the Stormers going wrong?
First and foremost, the Stormers have embraced a new, more attacking, modern style of rugby. That is the good news.
Their statistics reinforce their new attacking game.
They are right at the top of 2018 Super Rugby stats for carrying the ball. They have carried it 1087 times, for a total of 7174 meters. That is an extraordinary average of 6,6 meters per carry. Right at the top of the entire competition. Ahead of the likes of the Chiefs and the Lions.
They are right up with the best for making good passes too, sitting at third with 1207 passes. They have attempted 1384 passes, so they have a success rate of 87% when passing. Good stuff, again! Once again right up near the top of the table. Fifth on the table for offloads, they have made 85 of them in 2018.
The Stormers are right up with the best in so many aspects of attacking pay. Fourth on the table with 65 tackle breaks, 5th for lineouts stolen, 5th for dominant tackles, 150 of them.
This is all good stuff, but it has come at a cost.
That cost is that they have, somehow, lost all the emphasis, the focus, that defence requires.
They rank fourth for the most missed tackles in the competition, slipping a massive 206, while making 1197 good tackles. They are missing close to 15% of all tackles! In contrast, the Hurricanes have missed just 146 tackles, with a success rate in the low 90’s!
The Stormers also rank second on the stats log for handling errors, a massive 204 of them. (Both the Sharks and the Lions are right up in the over-200 bracket too!)
And then there is the turnover count! The Stormers have conceded a huge 141 turnovers in 2018. Third worst in the stats, just ahead of the Jaguares and the Sharks.
In 2017, the Stormers scored 64 tries, as good as any. Yet, they conceded 61, which is as bad as it gets! Fourth worst in the competition! Only the Cheetahs, Sunwolves, Waratahs and Rebels conceded more tries than the Stormers in 2017. All four of them featured right at the bottom of the overall Super Rugby log, while the Stormers went through to a quarterfinal!
There is something very very wrong with those statistics.
And it all boils down to a coaching problem!
When SA Rugby’s Jon Cardinelli asked Robbie Fleck about the poor defensive stats, Fleck responded by deflecting the question and asking how many tries the Stormers had scored. He was apparently very happy with the fact that they had scored 3 more than they had conceded!
That suggests that the coaching team’s priorities are completely unbalanced.
It is surely every coach’s responsibility, his goal, to strike a balance between attack and defence.
Back in the early days of Super Rugby the Auckland Blues, now known as the Blues, decided on a strategy of scoring more tries than the opposition. They played fast, attacking, innovative rugby, new to the world at the time, and they ran in try after try as they racked up the wins.
It worked, for a while.
Astute coaches and analysts soon saw the flaw in that approach. When the entire team is on the attack, there is nobody at home to guard the back door! Tactical kicking into space, chips and grubbers, and swift counter-attacking was soon the only tactical plan when playing the Blues. Turn them around, force them to scramble on defence. It worked a treat.
And so it was that the Auckland Blues sank lower and lower down the log.
The Stormers seem to be in exactly the same space that the Blues occupied so many years ago. All-out attack, and nobody cares too much about what happens at the back.
In 2018, it seems that the opposition have all read the book about the Stormers. They have employed the same counter-attacking tactics, the same kicking into spaces, and the same tactics of turning the Stormers around, and the result is again similar to the experiences of the Blues.
In 2018 the Stormers have conceded 40 tries, more tries and points than any other team in the competition – bar the Sunwolves.
And their own try scoring record is as poor as it gets, just 27 of them in 2018, placing them down in 11th on the overall stats tables. Only the Jaguares, the Brumbies, the Sunwolves, and the Reds have scored less, and nobody wants to be counted in that company!
Ever wondered why the Stormers have so few try-scoring bonus points?
You have to score three more tries than your opponents to bank one of those bonus points, and the Stormers are certainly not doing so!
Another scary statistic is that the Stormers have scored fewer tries than any of the other South African teams!
Where does the problem lie?
As I said earlier, how does a team, with so many stars in their ranks, and so many potential stars coming through their ranks, perform so badly?
The issue is more thought provoking when you realise that this is not something new. This has been a consistent issue since Allister Coetzee took over the coaching of the franchise. At least, under Coetzee, with assistance from his defence guru Jacques Nienaber, the Stormers had a rock solid defence. Since Robbie Fleck took over the team certainly scores more tries than they did under Coetzee, but they are now conceding more tries than ever in their history.
And that points squarely at a coaching problem!
The bottom line is simple – anyone with half a rugby brain can see that the Stormers defence is abysmal – and it needs fixing. However, while the Stormers have a coach who sidesteps the question by suggesting that scoring more tries than one concedes is the way to go, the Stormers will continue to spiral down the Super Rugby log.
And then there is the added problem – The Stormers are not scoring enough tries! Their handling and finishing has been sub-par at best, and that points to another coaching problem!
Much like an alcoholic, you have to acknowledge and accept that you have a problem before you can start fixing it! If you deny there is a problem……….
And that is why Robbie Fleck should be a worried man! The fans, the sponsors, the people of Western Province and Stormers rugby must be asking questions. They must surely be looking for an alternative to the Fleck way of doing things?
(Thanks to Jon Cardinelli of SA Rugby Mag, it was his column about the same issue that triggered my own thoughts on the subject.)