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    Bleak prognosis if Stormers crash again

    2019-02-20 10:32

    Rob Houwing - Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Newlands may still be the South African venue with the best potential for bumper Super Rugby gates … but history shows that the proviso is a consistently winning Stormers team, who have instead begun 2019 rather horribly on the back foot.

    The old, endangered stadium was still packing them in, sometimes with attendances of 40,000 and more, even toward the end of Allister Coetzee’s tenure as head coach between 2010 and 2015.

    “Toetie” may have had his critics during the period, as his charges often played an ultra-conservative, heavily defence-orientated game, but the bean counters wouldn’t have minded that much: people still pitched up to watch them because they were pretty regular local conference masters -- and overall title challengers -- and Coetzee eventually stepped down with a record of having won almost 66 percent of his games in charge.

    But a variety of negative subsequent developments in the camp, not least a major WP Rugby financial meltdown and associated boardroom tension and factionalism, have seen crowd levels fall away significantly in the last year or two, at exactly a time when an opposite hallmark would be so welcome.

    Administrators at Newlands will be wincing already about 2019 prospects in that regard, considering one of the Stormers’ most bilious starts to a campaign in recent memory as they succumbed 40-3 - looking sterile, disorganised and frankly featureless - to old enemies the Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday.

    Coming on top of their forgettable 2018, when they ended 11th of the 15 competing teams, it was a result that runs the serious risk of introducing a swift, fatal scepticism among their supporters for this year’s prospects.

    In Afrikaans, they might say a significant chunk of the once-formidable support base are quite possibly “gatvol” already.

    Nor does the immediate horizon look any brighter: the Stormers may already have dissuaded several thousand souls from forking out for what should have been (at least ahead of lopsided events at Loftus) a tantalising first home match this Saturday against other Highveld-based outfit the Lions, tournament runners-up for each of the last three seasons and a side generally known to play crowd-pleasing rugby.

    A few years ago, and in this balmy period of the year weather-wise in Cape Town, you might have expected the “house full” signs to be raised for a Newlands opener: they may be lucky to get even close this time, although hope springs eternal to a still-solid tally of their more diehard followers.

    But if the Stormers happen to be noticeably schooled all over again by Warren Whiteley’s men, too, the possibility does flicker dangerously that their entire season unravels with unexpected, breakneck speed.

    Yes, it is possible to go on to excel in a Super Rugby campaign from a nought-from-two start … and even recover sufficiently to win the title.

    That was what happened as recently as 2016, when the Hurricanes suffered an even worse first-round defeat than the Stormers did the other day: they were slaughtered 52-10 by the Brumbies in Canberra, and then a week later were also pipped 17-16 by the Highlanders in Dunedin.

    But they stabilised in quite dramatic fashion, winning 14 of a further 16 matches, including all three knockout tussles on the path to their first ever hoisting of the trophy.

    The trouble for the Stormers is that they have few obvious easy-beats on the short-term radar, if they do remain winless after two rounds.

    Next comes another taxing derby away to the Sharks, just another game where they may seriously rue still being without arguably their two most prized forwards, Steven Kitshoff (he definitely won’t make the Kings Park date) and second-row meanie Eben Etzebeth (supposedly available again “soon”).

    A bye follows, which may well come as a chance for valuable reflection … but then it is only a fortnight from there to their main overseas leg, embracing clashes with all of the Hurricanes, Blues, Reds and Rebels.

    For the Stormers to have a chance of generating any much-needed sense of rugby fever in the Western Cape when they finally return to a more solid run of home games, they really cannot afford to enter that phase sporting significantly more losses than wins.

    Considering the dangerous “political” and economic background at Newlands, a string of early defeats would greatly aggravate the potential for the wheels coming off in every sense.  

    Which is why a dramatic turnaround against the Lions this Saturday (17:15 kick-off) somehow seems so massively necessary.  

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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    Fixtures

    Saturday, 23 March 2019
    • Hurricanes v Stormers, Westpac Stadium 08:35
    • Waratahs v Crusaders, Sydney Cricket Ground 10:45
    • Sunwolves v Lions, Singapore National Stadium 12:55
    • Bulls v Chiefs, Loftus Versfeld 15:05
    • Sharks v Rebels, Jonsson Kings Park Stadium 17:15
    Sunday, 24 March 2019
    • Reds v Brumbies, Suncorp Stadium 07:05
    Friday, 29 March 2019
    • Hurricanes v Crusaders, Westpac Stadium 08:35
    • Waratahs v Sunwolves, McDonald Jones Stadium 10:45

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