Cape Town – The Robbie Fleck-engineered Stormers of 2017 are unrecognisable, a word that can have very diverse interpretations, from the team that operated in the last few seasons of Allister Coetzee’s tenure in Super Rugby.
But, as they brace for a third successive home quarter-final (a phenomenon straddling both head coaches’ eras), does that mean they have actually moved forward?
The answer is, I’m afraid, a deeply complicated and unavoidably indecisive one: it is both a pleasing yes and a brow-creasing no.
Now the Springbok coach, and happily beginning to refresh in the minds of the world – if it was needed – that he is, indeed, an astute rugby man, “Toetie” pretty consistently shaped obdurate Stormers teams who chiselled their way to victories, characterised by a murderously physical and soundly-structured commitment to defence, a good bit more often than they were defeated.
It was monotonous stuff a lot of the time, with a notably low emphasis on ball-in-hand adventure … and this in a region where “Province rugby” has such time-honoured associations with impulsive, high-thrill fare.
Nevertheless, the crowds generally still rolled in, excusing the shortcomings on attack because of healthy win percentages and the fact that Coetzee came desperately close at times to bringing the still-elusive title to the foothills of Table Mountain.
During his six years in the senior portfolio (and around 65 percent win rate), the Stormers played a final (2010) after finishing second overall to the eventual third-time champion Bulls, and then topped the broadest table ahead of the knockout phase in 2012, albeit that they then botched a home semi-final against the Sharks.
Those were also the days, it has to be noted, when the competition had an altogether more credible feel, as strength versus strength was a greater hallmark and everyone virtually played everyone along the way in ordinary season; the cream properly rose to the top.
A big part of current Super Rugby’s problems is its contrived, conference-based structure with SA teams laughably side-stepping the juggernaut New Zealand teams completely – at least in the pre-knockout phase -- every alternate year, a model that thankfully will change in a more streamlined but still flawed model next year.
So trying to gauge success between Coetzee and Fleck almost automatically becomes a more skewed, distorted and deceptive exercise.
What few critics and supporters doubted, when Coetzee quit Newlands after the 2015 home quarter-final comeuppance from the Brumbies (39-19), was that the franchise required a significant reinvention in attacking-game terms, and it is something Fleck, an emerging cerebral dynamo in his own right, has quite spiritedly embraced.
Evolution and marked alteration doesn’t click into place overnight and, now deep into only his second year in charge, Fleck has encountered plenty of bumps along the way, a bit like a flight encountering scattered but fierce thunderstorms over the equator.
He has no ego problem -- I can vouch for that over the course of many years of media contact – and will freely admit to mistakes along the road, blows from the school of hard knocks.
It was almost inevitable that, as he worked feverishly to sharpen his charges’ chutzpah and flair for the unexpected, trouble would surface as defensive devotion and adhesiveness slipped a little, simultaneously.
In broad terms, I would venture that he and his nearest allies in the booth are faring well – as opposed to superbly, maybe -- in his process, one certainly deserving a healthy dollop of patience and understanding.
Yes, Coetzee worked with tougher itineraries in his time, fewer “easybeats” on paper. There was, with respect, no Sunwolves then, and the Aussie teams were collectively far less flimsy than they so weirdly look in 2017.
But in Fleck’s defence, he plies his trade in a landscape where South African teams, generally speaking, are increasingly stripped of hardened, experienced customers who opt to ply their trades in Europe, meaning local coaches are almost constantly having to “develop” youngsters annually who may even be plucked away from their grasp by the lure of stronger currency in two or three frustrating years up the line.
There’s a repetitive cycle of “building” … without the high-rise, if you like, ever getting its finishing touches or being properly occupied.
Just imagine how much more Fleck might be prospering at this point if he still had amidst his playing staff the Burgers, Vermeulens, Aplons, Kochs, Kleyns, Rhodeses … and no, not all of those are marked has-beens.
So really, a comprehensive audit on the “Toetie v Fleckie” Stormers topic has little merit or purpose at this point.
For the record, and if we are to apply mathematics, Fleck presently boasts a win percentage of 64.51 (20 victories from 31 outings over the two seasons), which has him virtually level-pegging in those terms with Coetzee’s whole tenure.
Perhaps the simplest way of judging whether the incumbent is on an upward curve will be to see whether he eclipses the journey of last season (himself) and 2015 (Coetzee) -- when both ended rather nastily splintered on the rocks after quarter-finals – by actually getting his men past the Chiefs at Newlands this time and into the more coveted last four.
In recent weeks, or at least since the June recess, the Stormers have been that bit too daredevil, ragged and airy-fairy for my own liking, even as they have kept to winning ways, and that candyfloss approach could play too conveniently into the hands of the Mooloo Men.
If they can strike an astute balance, and better sanity to their approach – for example by restoring their capable set-pieces to strong standards after some worrisome sloppiness in recent rounds – they could yet be in productive business on Saturday.
Too much dazzle and the Stormers could career into the railings. Too little, a la years gone by, and … well, they might end up amongst the daisies and long grass as well.
Perhaps in closing, it is best to just reflect on how differently Fleck and Coetzee have fared in the try column, both for and against, for it seems to also tell a forceful tale of how they may differ (or have differed) in ideological terms.
In Coetzee’s log-topping 2012 year, for example, the Stormers scored 28 tries and conceded 21 from 16 games in ordinary season.
This year, from 15 pre-knockout fixtures, Fleck’s charges have registered an incomparable 64 “for” but equally incomparable 61 “against”.
So who’s got it right?
In a massive copout, heck, I think I’ll leave you to decide whether the Stormers are evolving or just revolving …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing