Cape Town – There is brave talk from the boardroom, but long-suffering Stormers enthusiasts have few reasons from an on-field point of view to feel that an elusive Super Rugby title may be around the corner.
Like a leaking pipe with a widening hole, the franchise are gradually sacrificing far too many seasoned names from their playing staff to look even vaguely as though they will move forward in next year’s competition; right now recession actually seems a better bet.
The 2017 event already promises to be a taxing one for them in fixture terms, as they are due to face New Zealand rather than Australian sides this time in ordinary season – something that could have a considerable bearing on whether they are capable of emulating 2015 and 2016, when they were effectively losing quarter-finalists each time.
They were so well beaten in those respective Newlands first knockout dates (39-19 by the Brumbies last year, 60-21 by the Chiefs this season) as to damningly suggest they don’t possess quite the firepower to even reach a final, never mind hoist the trophy.
Nevertheless, in a rare departure from his relatively low-profile presence since his appointment in April, new WP Rugby chief executive officer Paul Zacks told Die Burger’s Stephen Nell in an interview published on Wednesday that it was feasible for them to reach the 2018 showpiece game in the bloated competition.
While clearly intended as a positive statement, cynics – and you might wish to include yours truly in this instance – will be inclined to view that as an automatic admission that they aren’t hugely chipper about 2017.
It is possible they will place a “rebuilding” spin on next season.
But that’s all they seem to do at Newlands in modern times, really, such is the damaging extent of their loss of senior personnel … every year now.
The Stormers/WP are undoubtedly an admirable “development” union, with sound youth structures that occasionally provide home-grown manna from heaven – 21-year-old players and thereabouts who can come into the senior mix when circumstances (so often injuries) demand it and at the very least not flounder.
But instead of being able to cash in on their budding talent by merging them with a street-wise tier of experienced players from one season into others, the franchise routinely sees such intended gnarly, guiding hands slip through their fingers, overwhelmingly to foreign pastures.
Whenever depth looks like becoming a pleasing, necessary phenomenon in a competition that now drags on for more than half of the calendar year, it somehow fritters away for them.
The pattern leaves in its wake a near-permanent perception among sharp analysts that the Stormers are a good “nearly” team, yet unlikely to ascend to the southern hemisphere throne.
A bit like the once-mighty, three-time title-winning Bulls saw a couple of separate, major waves of departures over the course of two or three years not long ago – and recovery is modest at Loftus, thus far -- the Stormers have suffered such landslides of farewells very specifically this year and last.
Here is a reminder of some players who disappeared after the 2015 season: Duane Vermeulen, Deon Fourie, Steven Kitshoff, Michael Rhodes, Ruan Botha, Chris Cloete (albeit from the Currie Cup side), Demetri Catrakilis and Manuel Carizza.
As is that wasn’t enough cause for shock effects through a dressing room, 2016 is either already confirmed or highly likely in some instances to see the following players get on their bikes, largely for European bases: Schalk Burger, Nic Groom, Kobus van Wyk, Vincent Koch, Jaco Taute, Rynhardt Elstadt and Jean Kleyn.
Many of these are the sort of trusty “middle-level pros” who, legendary loose forward Burger reminded in a Newlands exit interview with this writer recently, are key lifeblood material for a Super Rugby team.
Burger, who has left for Saracens after around a dozen years of service in Cape Town, lamented: “You still have some top-end players on (South African teams’) books, but then there’s sort of a void these days in the middle … the missing ones are all sitting in Europe, Japan.
“You lose a lot of players after Super Rugby, and then you develop again during Currie Cup … you have to almost restart a culture (annually).”
With WP already in a played-two-lost-two situation in the increasingly fragile all-domestic competition this season, their ability to infuse significant numbers of new personnel from those ranks to the superior requirements of Super Rugby 2017 doesn’t look too compelling as things stand.
It will be relatively little comfort to the Newlands faithful that a SA Schools team heavily dominated by players from the Western Cape has just come off a praiseworthy clean sweep of junior internationals against Wales, France and England, all staged in the region.
Some of the boys in those squads have already been snapped up by rival unions for professional contracts, and by the time the best remaining players are ready to step up to senior first-class rugby in two or three years, you wonder just how many more treasured hardebaarde will have forsaken the franchise.
If the Stormers are going to be able to reconcile Zachs’ optimism about 2018 with actual presence in the final that year, you have to assume that some inspired recruitment is planned in the interim to compensate for the variety of steely characters who have left or are soon doing so.
My own long-range forecast for the Stormers in 2017? If they can simply flat-line by reaching the quarter-final again (the controversial, multi-pronged conference format itself does aid that likelihood) they will have done incredibly well.
They are already badly hamstrung, to my thinking, by the lack of really proven, dominant figures at flyhalf and scrumhalf, the absence of one or two brawny backline units to suitably complement their nimble gasmen out wide, and the ongoing struggle to identify a consistently good open-side poacher.
Now they are also shedding precious depth, right across the field positions, and just as priceless utility options (think Elstadt, Taute and others).
That the brain-drain of talent to overseas locations -- primarily given domestic currency weakness -- is a broader, countrywide problem, will be little comfort to their supporters whose slightly dimming passions are being reflected in gate receipts.
Strap in, I envisage a bumpy ride ahead on the lower slopes of Table Mountain …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing