Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - If you used social media and the chortling of some critics as a yardstick, you would think the wheels had spun right off the tracks for the Stormers.
Many of the old “southern softies”, “chokers” and “eternal bridesmaids” types of labels - some not exactly ungrounded in historical reality, it is true - have been bandied about in the aftermath of their roasting at the hands of the Crusaders in game one of their New Zealand tour.
Coming hot on the heels of the Newlands reverse to domestic rivals the Lions, there will also be a hysterical or knee-jerk lobby suggesting the Armageddon has arrived for Robbie Fleck’s charges.
So maybe just a pinch of perspective is required.
Not much more than a fortnight ago, they went toe to toe with the Chiefs in a high-tempo, top-drawer clash at a sun-soaked Newlands with some genuinely “wow” tries dotted by both outfits.
More importantly, the generally youthful Stormers side had the composure and nous to close out that electric affair, winning 34-26 and going six out of six in the competition.
But there has been a nasty little “correction” over two games subsequently, including the traumatic first half in Christchurch where the Capetonians haemorrhaged 36 points (hardly helped by extremely liberal allowance of offside line-speed by their conquerors) to the still unbeaten ‘Saders.
When New Zealand rugby sides get into blitz mode for even 15 or 20 near-unrelenting minutes, as happened on Saturday, things can get messy and chaotic both on the scoreboard and in structural terms for the opposition – any opposition - very quickly indeed.
So are we suddenly examining a Stormers corpse?
Hardly, I’d venture.
We have simply had salvoes of stark reminders, as far as the Stormers are concerned, that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
They are probably still a season - and that at very, very least - behind the undoubtedly more advanced and streetwise Lions in developmental terms as a unit, and never forget that even as they moved in sterling fashion to the final last year, the Jo’burgers suffered a notable wobbly or two along the way.
Perhaps the most stinging one came in front of the unsuspecting Ellis Park populace itself in round 10 (the point we’ve now reached this year) when the Hurricanes came to town and ran the Lions ragged en route to a 50-17 walloping, and by seven tries to three.
There and then, many more fickle South African fans were ready to summarily write off the Lions’ title chances, yet they bounced back to beat their next three opponents from NZ in a row (Blues, and then Crusaders and Highlanders in the knockout phase) before eventually being plucky losing finalists in Wellington.
I am not about to boldly venture that the Stormers will take a cue from that and suddenly dispose of the Highlanders this Friday and the ‘Canes the following weekend: for one thing, they are in New Zealand, whereas the Lions earned that trio of redeeming wins over Kiwi foes all in their Highveld heartland.
But it is also still perfectly feasible that Fleck’s outfit will not simply cave in, in what is left of their trek through the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Just a suspicion lurks in my own mind that mentally, the Stormers may subconsciously have lost the Crusaders match before it began in many respects, given how tough a tour opener it was and the need to “target” certain games even if you will seldom hear such confessions from a camp officially.
Put it this way: I’d be surprised and disappointed if we didn’t see an altogether more switched-on Stormers showing in Dunedin on Friday, where they have less reason to be awestruck than might have been the case in bogey metropolis of Christchurch and should also see regular captain Siya Kolisi back from a mandatory rotational break.
Remember 2012 at the Forsyth Barr Stadium, where they won 21-6 for example, a match highlighted by Joe Pietersen’s spot of solo magic for a crucial dot-down?
The second half fightback against the Crusaders should have been enough to remind the Stormers that they are not nearly as bad as that opening 40 minutes might have suggested to some especially unforgiving cynics.
Matching the rare intensity, chutzpah and pace of the best New Zealand franchises is a difficult business for any other team, and Fleck and his lieutenants know that only too well - hence the “Kiwi sessions” they have introduced at training this year, where they deliberately crank things up a notch or three for a period.
It is quite possible that the Stormers, still slowly coming to terms with the phenomenon, had to stick to the requirements so devotedly and bloody-mindedly for 80 minutes against the Chiefs, on course to that laudable victory, that it effectively knackered them for a fair period afterwards.
Progress comes in patient steps and stages; it doesn’t always kick in overnight and just stay there eternally, and the Stormers could simply be experiencing some degree of growing pains.
This tour, I fancy, still has the potential for a tangible second wind or “response” from the Capetonians, even if some will brand my belief over-optimistic ... let’s see.
The other thing to remember is that just for the time being, they are scraping the barrel a bit in terms of fit personnel in some areas.
With the premature exit from the tour of players like Cobus Wiese and Dan du Plessis, they have reached an unenviable stage of effectively having to muster “replacements for replacements”.
At season’s start, even those two, of course, were some way down the pecking order in their respective areas of service, before long-term injuries to the likes of Rynhardt Elstadt, Damian de Allende, Juan de Jongh and Huw Jones.
Will the embattled tourists bite the bullet?
I have a gut feel that for all their lingering shortcomings in some areas, the developing Stormers are good enough, and willing enough, to bounce back on this tour, in whatever form that initiative may actually take ...
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing