Stormers defiant after Super Rugby play-off defeat
The team has come a long way in a year, but they are still coming up short in the big games
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck was defiant after his team slumped to another Super Rugby play-off defeat against the Chiefs at Newlands.
The Stormers went down 17-11 to the New Zealanders on Saturday in a repeat of the 2016 quarterfinal, which the Chiefs won 60-21. In that context the Stormers have come a long way in a year, but they are still coming up short in the big games.
This was the Stormers’ eighth play-off loss in nine attempts since 1999. They have lost five play-offs in a row at Newlands since beating the Waratahs in the 2010 semifinal.
"Last year’s loss was humiliating but this year the defeat was a lot tougher to swallow when you consider how far we’ve come," Fleck said.
"There was one point in it with five minutes to go. We had an opportunity to go ahead in the game [SP Marais missed a penalty a few minutes earlier] and we didn’t take it. I don’t know if the best team won but we certainly are a better outfit than we were 12 months ago."
A blanket comparison of the Stormers circa 2017 is unfair because Fleck’s charges embarked on a telling crusade to reinvent themselves this season after suffering a huge defeat to the Chiefs in the corresponding fixture in 2016. Fleck’s attempts to engineer a makeover have only just started and on the evidence of what he has achieved in a short time frame there is promise that these Stormers can become better.
"We have had a long journey and we have shown massive improvement this year," Fleck said. "There are lots of good signs and this team can only get better. The things that were questioned last year after that loss — skills, decision-making and conditioning — have been addressed. We’ve taken a huge leap in the right direction in those areas. We have the ability to score tries now and put defences under pressure."
But there are still glaring weaknesses and similar excuses presented to those of his predecessors.
The Chiefs were tactically more astute on Saturday using the boot of flyhalf Aaron Cruden to pin the Stormers back in the first half. Their chase lines closed down space and fullback SP Marais was often guilty of choosing the wrong option when in possession.
Fleck also felt his side could have been better tactically in the first half hour when they had enough possession to worry the Chiefs. Instead they spent most of that time running up blind alleys against one of the best defences in the tournament instead of turning them around with the boot.
To the Stormers’ credit, they made better use of the boot in the second half and started edging the match. But they were always playing catch-up and that proved the difference.
Key players such as Eben Etzebeth, captain Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit have been recruited until 2019 while a new generation of talent has already been blooded in 2017.
Flyhalf Damian Willemse will vie for the jersey with the superb but injury-prone Jean-Luc du Plessis next season while World Under-20 player of the year Juarno Augustus [flank] will have the 2017 Currie Cup campaign to prepare him for Super Rugby next season.