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    Fleck years: Stalled progress … in insufferable climate

    2019-06-18 12:44

    Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - Any sugar-coating possibilities are essentially limited.

    In Robbie 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.

    Predecessor 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.

    Those are 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.

    Especially 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.

    Under his 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.

    Fleck’s total 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 fleeting.

    Somehow, the 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).

    That they 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.

    Wowing in 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.

    These 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.

    Yes, when all is said and done, Fleck probably just had to go.

    But speaking of the boardroom, maybe this is the correct juncture to bring in the mitigating circumstances around Fleck’s time in the role.

    They are, 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.

    Virtually throughout 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 stadium.

    Towards the 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.

    Periods when 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.

    Until he 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.

    There was 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.

    Robert Frank 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 capacity.

    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.

    Remember 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.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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