Cape Town – At least it’s over … the Stormers finally head home after what, statistically and otherwise, must go down as their worst overseas tour in Super Rugby history.
The record books from a trio of New Zealand fixtures will starkly show that they came closest, if that is the right word, in their final encounter against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday, albeit still going down by a gaping 19 points (41-22).
But they also failed to pick up a single log point in the so often traumatic, fruitless mission, and conceded a gory total of 155 points while registering only 60 of their own.
Most damning of all, and something that should be giving their salaried defensive strategists a special attack of heebie-jeebies, was that they haemorrhaged 24 tries over the three fixtures, an average of precisely eight per game.
You might say the Stormers of 2017, and also at some stages of 2016, have turned full circle from the hallmarks of old: under Allister Coetzee’s generous tenure they were seriously resilient on defence while accused of falling short of the silverware through noticeable inertia on attack.
The Robbie Fleck regime has unquestionably shown budding signs at times of repairing that predictability as an offensive factor, though right now the sacrifice in “who forgot to bolt the gate?” terms is proving hugely problematic and hardly suggesting they are any closer yet to securing even semi-final calibre in the competition.
It is a little bizarre that we have to give some credit for general improvement in the Cake Tin on Friday, even as the try count read 7-1 in favour of the defending champions; in soccer terms, that would only suggest you were played right off the park.
That wasn’t the case, especially when you consider that so much of the Stormers match-day squad for this game had a pronounced “dirt-tracker” feel to it and many pundits had initially feared a more painful thrashing.
Yes, the lopsided try column remains embarrassing, and is cause for deep review over the fortnight before the Stormers are next in action – probably with a considerably more experienced combination – against the Blues at Newlands.
But it also does no justice to just how close, warts and all, the greenhorn-laden visitors actually came in scoreboard terms to upsetting the ‘Canes.
There were protracted periods before and after halftime where the Stormers harried their much-fancied hosts vigorously off their stride, forcing error upon error which saw the Capetonians creep steadily back into the picture with a string of penalties for acting place-kicker SP Marais after flyhalf Robert du Preez had succumbed to a shoulder injury.
Well beyond the hour mark, and believe it if you wish, Siya Kolisi’s men had locked things up at 22-22 (helped, it must be said, by the Hurricanes’ contrastingly flaky kicking off the tee) and were rumbling their way toward snatching a sensational lead.
But then their lack of composure and naivety came back to roost at a really bad time, as the Hurricanes - always comfortable and imperious running from deep and off mistakes or turnovers - transferred pressure in a flash and it was, finally, game over as they turned screws in the last 10 minutes or so.
Still, the fairly makeshift Stormers party will board the flight for the long haul homeward knowing that they had clawed back a modicum of self-respect, with Kolisi to the fore as a motivator and for restless personal energy.
Where they might have buckled completely well before the change-around, instead it was as if someone turned off the airy-fairy switch and the Stormers twigged that they actually had some teeth – several of their players with precious little Super Rugby experience were scrapping conspicuously valiantly right to the final whistle.
The New Zealand television commentators, unless they were being a touch patronising, insisted at the finish that these Stormers will start winning matches again once back on South African soil, such had been their tenacity.
Kolisi probably struck the correct note, too, in his immediate post-match interview, when he said: “We knew we couldn’t fix everything in a week … I just asked for more physicality and work-rate and (got it).
“We have learnt more from these four (most recent) losses than we did from the six wins in a row before them.”
The Newlands faithful will wish to see tangible benefits from his statement, of course - and extremely soon.
It may happen: the Stormers overwhelmingly start playing sides again who you could submit are back in their particular league …
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