Cape Town - They didn’t end up with the Currie Cup this year but Western Province did end the just completed domestic seasons with a trove of both negative and positive points to ponder and mull over before the blue and white hoops are swopped for Stormers jerseys in February.
WP are one of the unions who, unlike the Sharks, have a different coaching team taking them into Super Rugby. Robbie Fleck coaches the Stormers, and after watching Province in the Currie Cup, the former Springbok centre should have felt that for the most part there is plenty to be positive about, according to SuperSport.com.
At one point of the Rugby Championship season there were no less than eight Stormers/WP forwards playing for the Boks. And yet the players that were left were not just competitive in the Currie Cup, they dominated it. A player such as age-group star Ernst van Rhyn underwent massive growth in the Currie Cup, Salmaan Moerat made the transition to senior rugby, Juarno Augustus got to play uninjured for most of the way…
At least that was the case until the end of the regular season, when suddenly the team started to show signs of the re-emergence of that dreaded old C word question that has bugged Newlands for much of the last decade.
WP coach John Dobson said after the final that there were no mental problems that tripped up his team at the last hurdle, but he did admit the players looked like they tensed up, both in the semifinal and the final. So the word “choke” might actually fit, as it often has, admitted usually at Super Rugby level, for the premier Western Cape team in home playoff games since 2009.
It has been a bit of a weird year for Dobson. There should be no question marks against Dobson’s ability to coach a team to victory in a final, or in any other play-off game for that matter. He was coaching WP when they famously won the Vodacom Cup as rank underdogs in a final in Kimberley several years ago, his Supersport Challenge team dominated the whole of last year’s competition and ended it unbeaten, he followed up with a good win as underdogs in the Currie Cup final, and of course he had great results in deciding games as a WP age-group coach.
But this year saw his Supersport Challenge team sail through the pool phase, even more convincing winners of most games than the year before. They had been unbeaten in the two years that the competition had been in play when the unheralded Free State Cheetahs visited Green Point in June for what was expected to be a regulation quarterfinal for WP. Against all the odds, Dobson’s team lost.
Add the unbeaten Currie Cup to the unbeaten Supersport Challenge, and you end up with quite an odd record - Dobson lost just two games this year, both of them play-off fixtures.
Although they did survive the litmus test of a pressure examination against the Blue Bulls the week before, Dobson, honest man that he is, might admit he conspired against himself in last weekend’s final.
Changing the linkage from 8 to 12 didn’t appear to be the massive change that some thought it was if you did a proper examination of it. Sikhumbuzo Notshe had been the starting No 8 when he wasn’t on Bok duty and had Jano Vermaak not pulled out on the eve of the game WP had experience at scrumhalf. And Josh Stander, not Damian Willemse, who did fluff his lines against the Bulls, was the regular No 10 all through the league phase of the season.
The WP players were said to be comfortable with Stander at pivot, more comfortable than with Willemse. And understandably so. It had nothing to do with Willemse’s ability, just that his only appearances for Province prior to the semifinals were at fullback - in a Newlands clash with Griquas in late September and then again in the last league game against the Bulls at Loftus.
Ultimately it really just came down to a choice between Willemse and Dan Kriel at 12.
With Dobson understandably reluctant to tamper with the workings of an established back three, he gave the suspicion in his team announcement press conference before the final that it was a case of Willemse either playing 12 or not playing at all.
It turned out to be a bad selection, at least if you look at it from the viewpoint of the silverware being the imperative (perhaps it shouldn’t be - the modern Currie Cup is a development competition you are supposed to learn from). Willemse wasn’t poor at inside centre, the reason that the selection didn’t work was because Stander bottled it.
Dobson is a good man manager so will know better than anyone that perhaps dropping Stander the week before a final wasn’t the best way to build his confidence for the biggest match of his career. Neither was the focus that it attracted.
Most coaches will tell you that you should resist the temptation to make change unless absolutely necessary when going into a final, and maybe Dobson got it wrong - not just for the final itself, but over the two weeks of the play-offs. In explaining the changes for the final, Dobson expressed misgivings about the effects of having three 20-year-olds standing next to each other in the semifinal. Perhaps that was something he should have thought about before the start of the play-offs. Had he done so, he wouldn’t have had to change for the final.
Given what his team was up against, there could also be an argument that Dobson got his loose-forward configuration wrong for the final. It would have been hard to drop Notshe, given that he is a capped Bok who started a Championship game at No 8 as recently as last month. But he could have moved him to No 6, which would have accommodated Juarno Augustus at the back of the scrum.
Augustus may not have shone against the Bulls but he does boast the staunch carrying ability and other attributes needed against a Sharks team that thrives on momentum and which had Jean-Luc du Preez playing for them. Indeed, a Jaco Coetzee at 6 and Augustus at 8 selection might have been optimum given Coetzee’s abrasiveness.
That though is all speculation and won’t help Dobson as he goes into the summer recess reflecting unhappily on what might have been. While the Sharks were worthy Currie Cup winners, Dobson probably did deserve another Currie Cup trophy if you consider the work he had done in getting the culture right after the season started amidst so much controversy.
To refresh memories, a week or two before the Currie Cup kicked off a Sunday newspaper published a list of 20 players that had been distributed to CEO’s around the country. It was a list of players that WP wanted to offload, and it featured some of the key players in the WP campaign, including the captain, Chris van Zyl.
There were vehement denials, as of course there would be, but those sorts of stories don’t get aired if there isn’t at least some fire to go with the smoke. And Dobson made no attempt to deny that when he spoke to the media just minutes after meeting with the players on the subject on the Monday after the story was published.
WP were about to embark on a tour of France, so it was particularly bad timing. If WP couldn’t afford to keep those players, how could they afford to go to France?
Dobson though is clearly a masterful man manager because he somehow righted the ship, and WP captain Van Zyl spoke after the final about how important it would be for the Stormers to carry the culture and ethos that has been built by the WP camp over the past two years into their Super Rugby campaign next year.
Was Van Zyl making a pointed statement? It is difficult to tell. But there can be no denying that WP’s good form in the Currie Cup did make life easier for other people in the WP union machinery - apart from the player list controversy, the Currie Cup was also played while the ongoing spat within the Stormers management, featuring former Blitzbok coach Paul Treu as the unhappy party, was simmering in the background.
The Stormers’ 2017 Super Rugby campaign was stymied by injuries. There can’t be any disputing that factor as one of the biggest contributors to the team’s low finish on the log table. But there were also indications during the season that the management wasn’t always a happy family, and it seemed that mixed messages were being sent out.
Fleck admitted culpability at the end of the season, for agreeing to split the attack and defensive roles of Treu and Paul Feeney across specifics such as phase and field position was always a recipe for disaster. The bottom line is that the Stormers never appeared to have the same ‘gees’, for want of a better word, and togetherness that Dobson’s WP team did.
‘Learnings’ is one of Fleck’s favourite words, and the above is just one of several ‘learnings’ he should take from the fast few months where he has played the role of observer. He and director of rugby Gert Smal - let’s not forget Smal’s position of authority - do need to sort out the internecine conflict and put an end to it before the pre-season training starts or the Stormers are going to squander a great opportunity.
For while off the field clearly there is much to be got right, the past domestic season, even though WP didn’t get achieve their ultimate goal, did produce some special moments that the Stormers can build on.
Fleck is going to go into Super Rugby with the core of a pack that outplayed the All Blacks at Loftus available to him, and he’s going to have a pack that, courtesy of the growth shown in the Currie Cup, is going to have depth that would be the envy of any other franchise except maybe the Crusaders.
The Lions have lost much forward depth in the off-season and the Sharks’ Super Rugby team is pretty much the same one that edged a poor Currie Cup final, so it should be reasonable to expect the Stormers to be the flag-bearers in the southern hemisphere competition next year.
Their chances of success could hinge on whether Jean-Luc du Plessis is going to be fit, in which case Damian Willemse can play fullback. If not, then Willemse has to be developed as a flyhalf, although it might be precipitate to throw Stander away on the basis of one poor performance in the final. He did do well in the regular season, perhaps he should just be encouraged to see the misfire in the decider as a “learning”.
The Stormers don’t have many world beaters out wide but subsequent to the emergence of former Blitzbok star Ruhan Nel as a quality outside centre, they do have a lot of solidity and impressive options. If the pack plays to potential and wins comfortable go-forward ball, WP have the players at the back who can destroy any opposing defensive system providing they are not getting mishmashed messages from the management.
One other ‘learning’ from the final for Fleck though is that there is one perennial Achilles heel that has yet to completely heal. Lineouts were a big problem for the Stormers in Super Rugby, and while that was cleared up for most of the Currie Cup, the malaise was back in the final.
Considering the quality lineout exponents that the Stormers have on their books, that is a phase that just shouldn’t be a problem for them. Clearly it is an area that requires special attention in the coming months.
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