“Do whatever it takes.” These gritty words seemed to go unspoken from coach to captain when the Stormers were backed into a corner, with the claustrophobia of perpetual defeat becoming unbearable. It was 27 April, Freedom Day in South Africa, but a day of reckoning for a Stormers team shackled by poor form and devastating injuries.
Traumatic as the injuries were, there was more to come as coach Robbie Fleck’s troubled swansong at the Cape side reached a meek and natural end. It was a reign that promised much in the beginning, but ultimately underwhelmed owing to a combination of bad luck and worse luck.
Siya Kolisi has been at the epicentre of the Stormers’ eventful Super Rugby campaign. It’s a position that as captain he has become accustomed to, one in which he thrives. But in the spin cycle of a topsy-turvy campaign, and ahead of a game against an old enemy that had pummelled them 40-3 just two months earlier, Fleck knew Kolisi needed to do whatever it took to beat the Bulls and resurrect their dying season.
When Seabelo Senatla dotted the ball down in the 28th minute, making the sign of the cross on the turf behind the posts at Newlands, it seemed as though the rugby gods had finally smiled down on the Stormers. They triumphed when they were arguably at their lowest, squeezing past the Bulls 24-23.
Kolisi was at the centre of that victory, “doing whatever it took”.
An eternity of ups and downs
The Stormers have lived a thousand lifetimes in this past tumultuous season of Super Rugby, losing matches they should have won and winning matches they should have lost. And as muscle memory turns to mental triggers, how will the lack of a winning culture among the Stormers be felt at Springbok level given the key personnel who represent the Cape team at national level?
Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Damian de Allende, Damian Willemse, Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff and a few more Stormers players are expected to wear the Springbok jersey at some point on the journey to Japan and the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Some of the shoulders on which South Africa’s deferred sporting dreams rest belong to Kolisi, Du Toit, Etzebeth and Willemse. All four have tasted defeat more times than victory in a team that finished rock bottom in the South African Super Rugby Conference and 10th out of 15 teams overall.
If we accept that winning is habitual and a winning mentality is born out of this habit, then how does that bode for the Springboks when they face the All Blacks in their first Rugby World Cup match on 21 September in Yokohama, Japan? Too soon to tell, maybe. The Springboks haven’t taken the field this year and have only just gone into camp.
What we do know even at this early stage is that injuries and player recovery times will become a factor at the biggest tournament of the year.
Of course, the Bulls, Lions and Sharks had their fair share of injuries to significant players. But even they cannot match the quantity and quality of players sidelined at the Stormers franchise, players whose fitness the Springboks are banking on to prosper in the Land of the Rising Sun when the World Cup ends in early November.
Heaven forbid the Boks are as inconsistent as the Stormers have been this year. Big-name players at the Stormers have gotten on to the injury list quicker than Game of Thrones characters are added to the dead list. Injuries have been swift and brutal – and costly for all.
So deep have the Stormers injuries cut them that at one stage the body count was 17, leaving Fleck with little option but to raid the Western Cape’s kindergarten cupboard for more supplies, yanking wing Edwill van der Merwe from Maties to take the field against the Sunwolves on 8 June. When young David Meihuizen replaced Cobus Wiese against the Lions in the previous week, he became the Stormers’ seventh lock used in the season that ended with the Australian Crusaders claiming their 10th Super Rugby title.
Already Kolisi’s knee injury will keep him out of the start of the Rugby Championship as a precautionary measure to get him to the World Cup. He’s been replaced by flanks Marcell Coetzee and the uncapped Rynhardt Elstadt, who have been included in the recent Bok training camp as cover for the captain. Bulls loose forward Marco van Staden has also been called up to camp while Kolisi recovers on the sidelines. With Kolisi’s leadership at the World Cup a prerequisite, he becomes the focal point of the team’s prospects for success.
A captain that is fit and on form will be key to dragging players over the line and pushing them to “do whatever it takes” when a trophy is at stake. Springbok head coach and director of rugby Rassie Erasmus is understandably playing it safe at this stage.
“Siya will be training with us until we leave for New Zealand and then he will probably stay behind to play one or two Currie Cup games. Thereafter, we plan to get him back into playing Test match rugby, hopefully in the match against Argentina in Pretoria [on 17 August], and it’s on the plane with us to Japan.
“I think if we push him now to go with us to New Zealand, we might end up with more than a 50% chance that he won’t go with us to the World Cup,” Erasmus explained.
Du Toit and Etzebeth were both included in the camp and will likely be passed as fit in time for the Rugby Championship, but playmaker Willemse hasn’t made it, presumably because his injury needs more time to heal.
The euphoria of the Stormers’ win against the Bulls on that Freedom Day in April was short-lived. In keeping with their theme of inconsistency, they travelled to the Jaguares in Argentina the following week and lost 30-25. Back to square one then, and a moment for Kolisi to rally his troops from the depths of despair yet again.
Kolisi hasn’t always been the hero. In April, against the Reds at the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, Australia, he got himself sent off, resulting in the Reds scoring two tries in his absence. Kolisi shouldered the blame, as he should have.
Adding to the Stormers’ sense of loss, this season has been a tumultuous battle at management level, coupled with threats of player strikes and legal wrangles over unpaid wages. A feud between coach Fleck and assistant coach Paul Treu threatened to bring the team to a standstill, until a peace pipe was smoked and the two were separated.
Treu was kicked upstairs to a position that someone in the boardroom appears to have dreamed up. He is now the performance and innovation manager, applying scientific knowledge to the preparation of all Western Province Rugby teams.
Fleck’s tenure ends on 31 October and he will assist new boss John Dobson until then, who will be finding his feet in the Currie Cup. The Stormers should find themselves in a more stable place at the beginning of 2020, with a clearer vision of where their strengths and fortunes lie.
On 18 May, the Stormers welcomed Cape Town’s favourite foreign team, the Crusaders, and another test of mettle and muscle was on the cards. The visitors were streaks ahead, on points and confidence. Newlands was preparing for a bloodbath. But Kolisi and Fleck had other ideas.
“Do whatever it takes.” Words never spoken, but appearing to have been heard all the same. It all seemed to be coming together again when Kolisi burst through the line to open the scoring for the Stormers. But it was never going to be that easy, and slowly but surely the visitors came back stronger.
With the Crusaders leading 19-16 as time ran out, the Stormers were into their ninth phase of possession. Willemse chased down a clever cross kick from Jean-Luc du Plessis with just seconds to go. The ball bounced on the try line, but Willemse failed to secure it or apply downward pressure – he lost it forward.
Referee Nic Berry called the players back to penalise an earlier infringement by the Crusaders. Time was up. A kick would have earned the Stormers a draw, but a kick for touch and ownership of the resulting lineout would give them a shot at victory. Kolisi pointed to the poles and Du Plessis completed the three-point kick.
The crowd looked on in disbelief, but the analysts and experts appreciated the significance of that call. Cometh the hour, cometh the captain and a decision. A point for finishing within seven points and a point for the draw; two points against the overwhelming favourites on a day when most expected them to finish empty-handed.
The match finished 19-19. It was good enough for Kolisi. He made the right call and ended a seven-match losing streak against the Crusaders. What’s more is that they were now just six points off the top spot in the South African Conference.
Time and time again Kolisi has had to do this for his team. Make the right call, drag them over the line and say the words that need to be said. If things don’t go according to Erasmus’ plan in Japan later this year, Kolisi may have to actually utter similar words for his countrymen in green and gold. He’s had a season of Super Rugby to prepare his body, and his speech.