Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Any
sugar-coating possibilities are essentially limited.
Fleck's now completed four-year tenure as head coach of the Stormers, the
franchise won 33 of 64 Super Rugby matches, for a disappointing win percentage
by their expected standards of 51.56.
Allister Coetzee consistently had his critics - primarily based on the
particularly conservative, defence-obsessed style of play he employed - but his
stats do cut the mustard indisputably better: win percentage around 66, in his
spell between 2010 and 2015.
the cold facts, meaning the politest spin you can really place on the “Fleckie
years” is that he didn’t take the Stormers any closer to title success; in more
honest terms it was only further away.
noticeable, really, is that he regressed too acutely in results terms over his
last two years, when observers might instead have anticipated the curve only
improving on his maiden pair of campaigns, simply because of his developing experience
in his post.
fledgling (at the time) charge, the 2016 and 2017 Stormers actually did pretty
well, ending third overall in the former year and that again in the latter,
even if the situation was boosted in no small way by the structurally-enforced
artificiality of the table - in pure points-accumulation terms, they were
actually fifth in 2016 and sixth in 2017.
win stats are, tellingly, much worse affected by his last two seasons: they
reached a nadir of 6/16 last year (37.5 percent wins) and have just ended this
campaign with 7/16 (43.75 percent) to show.
There were periods
of his tenure when the Stormers did find some undoubted snap and crackle as a
crowd-pleasing, progressive, attack-minded force and it seemed he might be “getting
it” tangibly as mastermind … but those moments also tended to be all too
team would always find ways to creep back into their more timid, predictable
shells, shifting the ball from side to side but with little sign of momentum or
prolific breaching of the advantage line (despite the frequent advantage of a
suitably grunt-laden pack).
could not cross the whitewash once in their vital, closing ordinary-season
fixture at home to the Sharks on Saturday ultimately came home to roost nightmarishly,
the 82nd-minute slither over the line by Lukhanyo Am stripping them
of a knockout berth and also seeing them plunge to a 10th-placed
overall finish when altogether more palatable sixth was only seconds away.
Rugby can be
cruel, but at the same time you would struggle to muster sufficient ammunition
to describe the Stormers (quite appallingly injury-ravaged of late, but who
isn’t these days?) as genuinely “unlucky”, either.
the tries-for column was too common a problem in the Fleck years, even as he
never seemed to lose the faith of his charges too obviously: they ended
joint-bottom in that category in 2019 with the basement, soon extinct Sunwolves
(34, at an average of 2.12 per game) and in 2018, while scoring 46, they were
nevertheless unaccompanied in last spot overall for tries manufactured - even
the hotchpotch Japanese outfit dotted 48.
figures stood greatly at odds, of course, with the oft-stated desire of the
bosses at Newlands to recapture a “Province rugby” ethic (one founded in
traditional adventurousness) at Super Rugby level and bring crowds flocking
back through the gates, en masse.
all is said and done, Fleck probably just had to go.
of the boardroom, maybe this is the correct juncture to bring in the mitigating
circumstances around Fleck’s time in the role.
you see, relatively plentiful.
Just for one
thing, his era has coincided with a particularly pronounced acceleration in the
number of properly Super Rugby-quality South African players forsaking our
shores for hugely more lucrative overseas contracts.
It is going
to make it increasingly harder - unless the trend is unexpectedly arrested
soon - for our home-based franchise coaches to prosper: just for example, the
Bulls ended this year’s ordinary season as the best domestic side, but Fleck’s
equivalent up north Pote Human still only shows a moderate 50 percent win
record as the Bulls won eight (admittedly they also drew two) of 16 games.
his tenure, too, Fleck was hamstrung by the background pall of gloom,
uncertainty and just as often suspicion and mistrust as financial and often
linked “political” issues smouldered at the ageing, slowly decaying Capetonian
end of just his first year at the helm, the coach, his assistants and the
playing personnel could only look on helplessly and with consternation as an
already cash-challenged WP Rugby faced a much-publicised, initial R72-million
lawsuit from former commercial partners Aerios, a matter that has only lumbered
on in a litigatory spaghetti.
Then in 2017
heavyweight equity partners Remgro withdrew their loyalty - another hammer blow
to the Newlands coffers, given that they now seek payback for
multi-million-rand loans and the matter weighs heavily on fresh contract
prospects for various premier-tier players supposedly keen to sample John
Dobson’s first year as Fleck’s successor in 2020.
salary runs have even looked tenuous can’t be good for morale in any
professional set-up, and Fleck’s drawbacks haven’t ended there.
stepped down late last year, brash-talking Thelo Wakefield had been, by several
accounts, more of a “hands-on” president for dressing-room purposes than many
in the playing camp might have liked - possibly able to take advantage,
certainly at first, of Fleck’s lack of recorded gravitas as head coach.
also the quitting of director of rugby Gert Smal to acclimatise to (the former
WP playing legend of the 1980s vacated his post very early in the 2019 season),
while the climate has also been polluted by the “Paul Treu tensions”: the
former defence coach - for much of Fleck’s time - made claims of
discrimination that were dismissed after an independent inquiry, but still left
an awkward taste in several key mouths.
Fleck, always an engaging, usually easy-going fellow who wears his heart close
to his sleeve, is well young enough at 43 to live to tell another tale -
possibly a more upbeat, success-marked one, too - in a high-level coaching
He has been
through a school of extraordinarily hard knocks for four years, and it could
stand him in good stead somewhere down the line, even as some onlookers and
analysts no doubt harrumph at that thought.
that when truly “celebrity” capture Eddie Jones had his infamous few days’
tenure in late 2015, and deceptively proclaimed his love for waking up beneath
the “Table Top (sic) Mountain”, the last thing back-up staffer Fleck - then
minus even Currie Cup head-coaching experience - would have expected at the
time was to be thrust into the hot seat so shortly afterwards for the
proverbial hospital job.
For that, he
warrants at least some gratitude.
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