Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - South Africa’s collective Super Rugby 2015 campaign was put out of its misery on a strangely soulless and ultimately depressing evening at Newlands on Saturday.
It was almost as if the normally fiercely loyal, abundant Capetonian rugby public never really believed the Stormers - even as the country’s conference winners - were credible material for the overall title.
How else do you explain that the famous stadium, which would have been packed to the rafters for a knockout match not too many years ago, struggled to have even two thirds of its seats filled for the effective quarter-final against the Brumbies?
Spectator apathy - and that on a virtually cloudless winter’s day - very much transferred to the playing turf as the home side found themselves bludgeoned onto the back foot very early, a situation from which they never really recovered.
There were occasional flickers of comeback promise in the second half, but if the final score-line of 39-19 to the Aussie guests was bad enough, the try count of 6-1 told an especially damning tale.
Throw in the fact that the lone Stormers touchdown in coach Allister Coetzee’s unpalatable swansong came through an opportunistic intercept from Cheslin Kolbe, and it somehow summed up the rank poverty of enterprise nationwide in the competition this year.
Mind you, for core skills and basic efficiencies we’re not exactly world leaders right now, either.
In the acidic aftermath, pundits and enthusiasts alike on social media were quick to remind that the Stormers, for all their honest endeavour in achieving domestic supremacy again, were actually seventh overall on a pure “points gained” basis in ordinary season - basically saying that they were merely the best of a bad local bunch, and that it showed when the crunch came.
Bombing out in such undesirable fashion meant that for the first time since the introduction of the three-conference model in 2011, no South African side makes the last-four cut.
Two teams cracking the semis from New Zealand is understandable and very richly deserved, but the other couple coming from Australia, ranked below SA on the IRB international ladder, is less easy to digest on this part of the planet.
The Stormers were gored despite statistics suggesting they actually governed 59 percent of possession and 58 percent of territory, whilst they supposedly made 468 metres to the 278 of the Brumbies.
“It didn’t bloody feel like it,” is bound to be the response of many hometown fans, who could muster no more than a ripple of applause - at least among those who hadn’t scurried for the exits - when acting captain Juan de Jongh was handed the conference trophy afterwards.
For timing and immediate relevance, it seemed a little like slipping into the fingers an additional pink ticket for a parking offence to some handcuffed, arrested mass murderer.
The Stormers were found seriously wanting for verve and continuity, as summed up in second-half SuperSport television commentary by a Springbok and ex-Stormers captain and notable “flair” player of yesteryear Bob Skinstad: “It’s either the up-and-under, the chip over the top, or give it to Damian de Allende ... oh yes, or the rolling maul.”
In the Randburg studio, former All Blacks coach John Mitchell, one of a few pretty celebrated tracksuiters successfully ducking and diving so far from SA franchise job courting, said afterwards: “The Stormers were so predictable ... very easy to defend. They didn’t throw any jokers at the Brumbies.”
Meanwhile Springbok World Cup hero of 1995 Joel Stransky rather obviously, but still very necessarily, contended that the injury-enforced loss for the short-lived playoffs phase of combative Bok loose forwards Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Burger had been a telling blow.
“It just dropped down the whole atmosphere of that Stormers team.”
Stransky’s observation was additionally disconcerting because Vermeulen, a pivotal component of the team’s forward muscle in recent seasons, is now Toulon-bound and lost to the franchise.
They will also surrender brilliant young loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff and, even if he has his detractors over his general play, dead-eye place-kicker Demetri Catrakilis who so often makes the difference between victory and defeat in a try-shy side.
So in many respects it is back to the drawing board for the Stormers in 2016 (though they at least have some sound developmental systems), as is the case for so many other SA franchises rocked by waves of player defections to foreign climes as the rand weakens ever more dispiritingly.
Frankly, it is very hard at this point to see any SA team being able to mount a staunch enough challenge in the short- to medium-term for Super Rugby’s main prize, last claimed by the Bulls for a third time in 2010 – the country is dangerously more vulnerable these days to an ongoing exodus of quality players than either of the other two SANZAR partner nations.
Speaking of those partners, they will be wondering all the more frequently about the wisdom, if that is the right word, of South Africa from next year being the country featuring the most sides - six - as the presently coach-less Kings return to the fold in a revamped, ultra-complicated tournament.
I don’t see the good times rolling again for our country in Super Rugby any time soon.
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