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    Stormers: Fleck passes huge exam

    2016-03-20 08:52

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Had they made a movie about Robbie Fleck at exactly the time genuinely heavyweight global coach Eddie Jones dramatically scuttled out of the Stormers job after a few days in the post, some might have bitterly wished to title it “The Unwanted”.

    Or even a similarly unflattering “The Leftover”, maybe.

    For depth and gravitas of respective CVs, of course, there was – and still is for the time being – only one winner between the two, and that folder does not belong to the man who leapt from an assistant’s role with the Newlands franchise to hastily fill the senior void.

    But if the effervescent and feisty former Springbok centre, once renowned for seldom sidestepping the social delights of rugby and delighting in non-military hair, goes on to forge a notable new name for himself as a head coach at first-class level, mark down March 19 2016 as a contender for the day when his arrival in the respect stakes, if you like, was confirmed.

    Games are not won by a bloke in a tie in the booth, of course: that is left overwhelmingly to the scrappers between the white lines and how, and with what level of relish, they carry out plans.

    But the tactical and other acumen of the off-field mastermind can be priceless nevertheless, and Newlands on Saturday night really seemed one of those occasions when that hallmark applied in a big way.

    Never mind that there was a flattering margin -- almost beyond argument -- to the Stormers’ 31-11 Super Rugby victory over the hitherto unbeaten and class-oozing Brumbies, which included some flashpoints and decisions by officialdom that will be debated for a few more days until Week 5’s programme kicks in and everyone instantly moves on.

    Importantly not in dispute (and even losing captain Stephen Moore had the excellent grace to admit it afterwards), was that the better side won and that in itself is a huge feather in the caps of Fleck and his players.

    I was among many observers who installed the Stormers as underdogs for the fixture, and for the majority of the 80 minutes, until they began to crucially unravel from a discipline point of view, it was difficult to escape a feeling that the Brumbies were well capable of suddenly striking for, say, 14 points in the space of four minutes or thereabouts and turning the game on its head.

    That it never happened was a major tribute to the home outfit’s tenacity, intelligence and unyielding devotion to a game-plan based around starving the athletically explosive Australians of consistently good field position to engineer raids.

    The Stormers produced a combination of astute kicking behind the Brumbies’ big back three, aggressive and structurally solid defence, occasional crisp hand-to-hand play of their own and a stable set-piece platform to pin the visitors for long periods in their own territory – around 70 percent of the time, if the stats offered afterwards were to be fully believed.

    If anything, the Capetonians played their hungriest and most incisive rugby in the closing stages, when the Brumbies were more harassed and disempowered than ever, albeit that they were a man down for the majority of the last quarter courtesy of a brain explosion by their reserve hooker Josh Mann-Rea, who landed a bit of pugilistic activity on the unmoved and secretly delighted face of thick-skinned Oli Kebble.

    This was a far cry from the chaotic, rabbit-in-headlights performance against the same opponents that marked long-time chief mentor Allister Coetzee’s swansong last season, when the Brumbies waltzed to a six-tries-to-one Newlands triumph to quickly end the Stormers’ knockout-phase involvement for 2015.

    Fleck, who very pleasingly does not have a problem keeping his feet on the ground, would probably be the first to admit that he has a gruelling, windy road yet to travel if he is to emulate his predecessor for fairly regular South African bragging rights in Super Rugby, even if the main spoils always stayed elusive for the Stormers in Coetzee’s tenure.

    But did the 40-year-old Robert Frank Fleck diligently, determinedly bank the cruel lessons from that defeat to ensure no repetition this time around? You bet he must have.

    This smacked in every way of a win – a precious one, considering the disappointing reverse at the ground to the Sharks a week earlier – inspired as much behind the scenes as it was beautifully executed in the combat itself.

    Also instructive, perhaps, was the calmness he showed in the booth – no pens hurled, no barking demonically into a walkie-talkie, at least as far as TV camera flashes of him revealed -- for such an infant of head-coaching at this level.

    He timed substitutions to near-perfection, into the bargain: almost all of his bench personnel added great oomph to the quest for victory, and that certainly included 21-year-old flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis, son of Newlands legend Carel.

    Fleck indirectly earned a major tick of approval from much-travelled former Stormers and Bok team-mate Cobus Visagie, the tighthead prop who said on Twitter (@Drieman3): “One of the best performances of a South African team against an Australian one in the aerial battle. Much improved, @THESTORMERS.”

    The franchise, with this happily stabilising and emboldening outcome for them, have opened up a menacing nine-point lead already in Africa Conference 1, albeit that the next-placed Bulls have a game in hand.

    *Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Hurricanes v Kings, 08:35. Saturday: Chiefs v Force, 08:35; Rebels v Highlanders, 10:45; Sunwolves v Bulls, 12:55; Cheetahs v Brumbies, 15:05; Sharks v Crusaders, 17:15; Jaguares v Stormers, 23:40. Sunday: Reds v Waratahs, 07:05. Byes: Blues, Lions.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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