Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – It is going to take one of the more Herculean of turnarounds for the Stormers to satisfy the key aspiration, upon his appointment two years back, of chief executive Paul Zacks.
The replacement as WP Rugby CEO for long-serving Rob Wagner in mid-2016 has been relatively publicity-shy since taking office, more often than not obliged to fight fires over cash-related crises at Newlands than deal with rugby-specific issues.
But he did open up at the time to the rugby scribe for Die Burger, Stephen Nell, suggesting that 2018 was a feasible target for the Stormers in repeating their sole achievement (2010, losing to the Bulls) thus far of reaching the Super Rugby final.
Zacks’ vision as he took the reins included “putting structures in place to make three of the next five finals … not just (aim to) win one”.
It was positive talk, but are the Stormers walking the walk in pursuit of that target?
The answer, as things stand, sadly appears a very resounding “no”.
If anything, a serious danger exists that the Western Cape franchise will only regress on their 2017 record - and quite possibly also experience their worst campaign since 2014.
Saturday’s thumping, 52-31 defeat to the Lions in Johannesburg - a second consecutive Highveld derby defeat for them after losing 33-23 to the Bulls a week earlier - saw Robbie Fleck’s charges slip to a halfway record in ordinary season of only three wins from eight.
They are a precarious 11th overall in the competition, and even that is tenuous given that three of the four teams below them - Bulls, Blues and the basement Sunwolves - have two games in hand over them.
The Stormers, third in the five-team SA conference, are also a fairly gaping 12 points behind local front-runners the Lions, so would probably need to make up around three wins on them after the “turn” to have any chance of overhauling them at all.
Only cause for some comfort is that the Lions, after a bye (like them) this weekend, then travel for their four-leg Australasian tour.
But do the Stormers look like knockout-phase material, never mind potential finalists or title-winners?
Even the first part of that question poses serious uncertainties: they just seem caught in an enduring no man’s land between pepping up their attacking play - the big shortfall in Allister Coetzee’s otherwise notably competitive tenure for the most part - and retaining the stout defensive principles and execution for which they were previously famed.
Yes, they have dotted an acceptable 26 tries from their eight games, but that is still inferior to five other teams competition-wide, and it is in “tries against” where long-suffering Stormers enthusiasts will spot only trauma.
Having leaked eight at Emirates Airline Park on Saturday, including that remarkable first-12-minutes hat-trick to Madosh Tambwe, their season concession swelled to 37 (closer to five than four per match) which is superior only to the still-winless Sunwolves (40).
No wonder former Newlands crowd-favourite, Springbok wing and now SuperSport pundit Breyton Paulse referred on Twitter to the Stormers’ 2018 plight as a weekly “getjommel” - Afrikaans slang for a dog’s breakfast, if you like.
Whilst it must be said with some conviction that the franchise have been utterly bedevilled with injuries to big-name players this season - and some who occupy the most critical tactical positions like scrumhalf and hooker - they also pride themselves on their developmental structures to bolster depth.
But in recent weeks, a worrying feature has been how usually instrumental, international customers and role models to any greenhorns like captain Siya Kolisi, Steven Kitshoff and Nizaam Carr have dipped in lustre or consistency from their more renowned playing levels.
Immediately after the latest, Johannesburg setback, a player like the versatile Pieter-Steph du Toit (possibly still not wild about blindside flank, but making a real fist of it) must have wondered what he had done to deserve a 21-point reverse, considering how nobly he “fronted up” physically and mentally as several others more or less idled around him.
The Stormers hope to be able to gradually infuse, over the next few weeks, fit-again players like Jean-Luc and Dan du Plessis, Frans Malherbe and then prize, hard-man lock Eben Etzebeth and frontline hooker Bongi Mbonambi.
A concern for their support base will be that Stormers’ knockout aspirations may be dead in the water by then; their next match is another out-of-town derby against the resurgent Sharks, remember.
Certainly if the Stormers fail to even make the finals series this year, it would be their first experience of that very financially-inconvenient phenomenon since 2014, when they ended 11th out of 15 in the competition and last had a worse time in their first eight fixtures - won two, lost eight.
Every year since, the Stormers have at least hosted a quarter-final, albeit that they have been beaten every time.
They are currently lagging severely when you compare, too, their first eight results from those seasons: in 2015 they had won 5/8, in 2016 it was 6/8 and 2017 the very same (including victories in all of their first six games).
That planned, major progression in 2018?
Er, we’re looking dangerously at the opposite ...
The eight remaining Stormers matches: Bye, Sharks (a), Rebels (h), Bulls (h), Chiefs (h), Sunwolves (a), Lions (h), June recess, Jaguares (a), Sharks (h), final-round bye.
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