Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Rocked by player defections from the previous season, a cash-flow crisis and a much-publicised, multimillion-rand dispute with commercial partner Aerios, the Stormers hardly seemed well-placed for a compelling challenge in Super Rugby 2017.
READ: EXCLUSIVE: Fleckie... the man, his methods
Yet after the first few rounds of the competition, they have defied prophets of doom with a five-game unbeaten run, even if some of the stiffest foes lie just around the corner.
Importantly, there has been renewed vibrancy and innovation in their playing-style, too, with emerging head coach Robbie Fleck clearly pushing many of the right buttons.
Here is the second and final part of his extended interview this week with Sport24 …
Houwing: It’s no secret that this was a franchise in financial and other strife in the off-season … did the woes inadvertently draw everyone in the playing camp closer together?
Fleck: Definitely. It was a tough pre-season, late last year, with things going on in various areas (behind the scenes). Not everyone was up to date … the players weren’t! With the media reports about what was going on, and what had happened (elsewhere) with the Kings too, it was a difficult time for us to sort of stabilise everything within the group, to get the buy-in from the group that everything would work out fine, that everyone would get paid at the end of the month. To then put them through pre-season in 30-degree heat, you know, and asking more of them professionally, making them do longer hours … there were certain challenges we had to face.
Houwing: Yet the players bought in, despite the climate of instability?
Fleck: The players completely bought in. They knew they couldn’t control what was happening in the boardroom, and even in the courts (the Aerios dispute – Sport24). All they could do was draw together. We all pushed in one direction, for each other. That momentum has been kept. It’s forced us to get tighter, so to speak.
Houwing: How successfully do you dovetail with your director of rugby, Gert Smal?
Fleck: It’s good. His is a tough job … he’s got to put systems and structures in place, look after the entire union. Fortunately myself and Gert go way back; we have a great relationship. He had not that long previously retired as a player when I came along. My first connection with him would have been when he was made WP coach around 2000, and he coached me for two or three years. Very good coach -- he and Carel (du Plessis) were a great combination. We have a good understanding of where the game is going, how we should play. He saw certain strengths in me that he liked and I obviously rated him, knowing his own coaching background ahead of the directorship. Gert is a genuine rugby man and that is what I love about him; rugby’s first and its people are first with him. He looks after his people. His detail is excellent. Those are qualities I would like to be able to share. Our relationship is very solid; we are working together for the benefit of the Stormers and Western Province.
Houwing: A flair for the unexpected seems to be increasingly penetrating your charges’ minds in Super Rugby this year. How do you coach unpredictability?
Fleck: it is difficult, especially when you are bound to have some players who have been coached within quite stringent structures for some time. That’s where credit has to go to Paul Feeney (skills coach from New Zealand) … you know, I was considered quite an unpredictable player, but nobody coached that. It was who I was, as a personality and player. Certainly some players have it naturally, but I still thought quite a few others would struggle with (the principle) … playing what you see. Paul’s had the ability to unlock it in every single player! It’s just about repetition, repetition, putting the players in a chaotic environment, making decisions under pressure, reading the play. That’s all we did in pre-season; we just trained the chaotic situations, where players had to make decisions off the cuff. You should have seen how horrible and unnatural it looked in the beginning; they would drop balls … the way we looked in November, December, in the first part of January, I thought it might be a disaster. But as we pushed and pushed you just saw people becoming more natural and comfortable. South Africa has an abundance of talent … the reality is we’ve just been too systems-driven. It’s very easy to coach that, and it worked for a certain period of time. But the game’s all about unpredictability now.
Houwing: Was that Cheetahs game last Saturday the most complete and satisfying of your Stormers head-coach tenure?
Fleck: Yes. Look when I coached the WP under-21s we played pretty similarly. We won that tournament pretty convincingly and won the final by 60-odd points. It was a similar brand there, so there were certain games in that time when I felt really satisfied as a coach. But to do it at Super Rugby level is different. At under-21 level, the defences and decision-makers aren’t as good; you can get away with a lot. To do it at this level … certainly that was the most satisfying I’ve known as head coach.
Houwing: How much better-equipped do you feel now to avoid a 60-21 reverse against the Chiefs when you meet them this time?
Fleck: Who knows, we’ll know more soon … that’s a question for me on Saturday night, perhaps. I certainly believe from what I have seen that we are vastly improved team and have come a long way since (last season’s quarter-final). Culturally, tactically, the brand … whatever; all are better. The evidence is there. To do it against another Kiwi team; that will be the true test of where we are. I don’t want to say we will beat, I don’t want to even say it will be close, because if it is not then we are back to square one again. We believe as a group we have grown a lot.
Houwing: Has rotation of players, especially key forwards, been a more conscious policy this season? It certainly seems so …
Fleck: That again comes down to better planning, compared to last year, when we were always on the back foot (after the dramatically short-lived Eddie Jones tenure – Sport24). This year I’ve had time to discuss well in advance with players when they will have breaks and so on. We are certainly better-organised in that regard, the players better informed.
Houwing: Has it surprised you how well your Young Turks, many of them rushed to the fore because of injuries to more senior players, have fared so far? How many have swum, rather than sunk, as it were?
Fleck: Well, the only thing they had to do was go through the pre-season like everybody else did, really. That’s why they’ve done well; they’ve come from the same environment. There’s no doubt we have plenty of talent, and we’re not scared to play them. Game-time probably came a little earlier than expected in some instances, but I am proud the hard work of the pre-season assisted them. We push the mental side of things for this tough competition, and keep the finger on it. Youngsters have a certain fearlessness, aren’t afraid so much of consequences. That’s why the balance of our side is good: lots of freshness and energy, and a leadership group to harness and control it. This weekend will really be a good test, as I said; if we lose it is all about growth, a reminder things can only get better.
Houwing: Every year, it seems, SA franchises suffer damaging player exoduses to abroad, impeding continuity. How hell-bent are you on keeping this particular 2017 group of players together for longer?
Fleck: That’s the challenge across the board in South African rugby. Look how the Lions have benefited from keeping pretty much the same group together for five years; that’s why they are successful now. They have good coaches, created a great culture, and are playing a superb brand of rugby, but they’ve only been able to build that over time. Ackers (Johan Ackermann) didn’t get successful in years one and two … now you can see they’re a family, know totally what they’re doing. They’ve retained players for four or five years. Yet the exodus is only likely to increase from South African rugby, because of the financial situation. The pot is only so big contractually. That challenge will remain for a while, and the blooding of youngsters maybe a bit (ahead of their time) is going to keep happening. We will never be successful in SA until we can get that continuity factor right. For big results, and I mean winning this trophy convincingly, you need three years minimum with a group of players. To win this thing, you have to retain 90 percent of your squad. Again, we will have our challenges next year; a lot of players are up for re-contracting. And they may go. How do we manage to keep everyone happy financially, given the limits, even if culturally they are happy? If we keep all the young kids in our set-up at the moment, if they are here in three years’ time, the Stormers will be a serious, serious outfit! But if half leave, we will always just make the quarters ...
Houwing: You are contractually hanging onto several of your ‘hardebaard’ players for a couple more years, aren’t you?
Fleck: Yes, a number of our big players, Springboks, have signed to 2019: Siya (Kolisi), Eben (Etzebeth), Pieter-Steph (du Toit), Frans (Malherbe). We can build a lot of younger players around them. But the key is retaining those very youngsters … as soon as one of them just plays Super Rugby, gets that exposure, the agents are on the phone to Europe. I mean, someone like (Steven) Kitshoff should never be in France. He should be playing here. I know he’s coming back, but he’s missed two years of Super Rugby. You need six or seven guys you can (anchor) things around, which then allows youngsters to perform.
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