Lloyd Burnard - Cape Town
Cape Town - The disappointment was etched all over coach Robbie Fleck's face following the Stormers' 17-11 loss to the Chiefs in the quarter-finals of Super Rugby at Newlands on Saturday.
He could not hide it, and he was not trying to.
Fleck acknowledged that the loss was harder to take than last year's 60-21 hammering against the same opposition, at the same venue and at the same stage of the competition.
Since that dreaded day at Newlands when Fleck, in his maiden season as coach, was embarrassed by the Chiefs, the Stormers have set about making things right.
Fleck has worked tirelessly, and when the Stormers knocked over the Chiefs at Newlands in regular season on April 8, it looked like they had turned the corner.
At the start of the season and on their New Zealand tour, defence looked to be the major concern for the Stormers.
On Saturday, they conceded just one try against a Chiefs side that had put eight past them a year before.
The improvement is there for all to see, but the truth of the matter is that it is another playoff failure for the Stormers.
Captain Siya Kolisi summed up the disappointment with his message to the fans.
"It's tough. We know that there are a lot of people whose happiness relies on whether we win or lose," he said.
"But they must just know ... imagine how we feel. It's tough for us as well. We have to play out there every single week. It's tough to walk of losing ... we want to win every single game.
"We appreciate their support, they must know that. We give our best every single season."
Perhaps the highest praise came from Chiefs coach Dave Rennie, who has been in Cape Town three times in the last year, winning two and losing one against the Stormers.
"They’re a lot closer (than they were last year) because they’ve beaten us once and went close again tonight," Rennie said after Saturday's match.
"They’re a lot fitter this year, I reckon. They’ve got a far better understanding of the game they’re trying to play and how to defend against Kiwi sides.
"Even on their tour to New Zealand they really pushed sides. They’re a good side and have a lot of good young kids coming through."
Those words will be small consolation to Fleck, who must now go back to the drawing board and look to build on what his side has achieved this year.
His job is safe, but he will know the frustration that Stormers fans have felt year in and year out in Super Rugby.
This was their eighth loss in nine play-off matches and, of the the sides that contested the old-school Super 12 competition, only the Stormers, Sharks and Lions are yet to lift a title.
For a franchise that has always had quality at its disposal, that is not good enough.
"Last year's loss was pretty humiliating and was a different sort of feeling, but this year is a lot tougher to swallow, especially given how far we've come in the last 12 months," Fleck said on Saturday.
"It was on a knife's edge and there was one point in it with five minutes to go.
"I don't know if the best team won, but we're certainly a better outfit than we were 12 months ago. It's a tough loss for us."
Despite the obvious emotion, Fleck was trying his best to be positive.
"I'm just happy with where we are in our game at the moment," he continued.
"We've shown massive improvement and there are lots of good signs. This team can only get better and grow from here."
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