Amidst all the speculation and angst around which Super Rugby franchises should be cut from the tournament, as the sport still grapples with professionalism 21 years after shedding its amateur status, the Stormers have shown what it truly means to be professional.
Until this year, the Stormers have been like so many other franchises, particularly in South Africa and Australia. They were professional in name but not entirely in deed.
In the late 1980s, when Alex Ferguson took over as manager at Manchester United, he discovered a talented dressing room with a drinking culture. The team was good enough to get by and win the odd trophy, but it was a long way from being a dominant force in the game.
Well, we know the rest. He cleaned out players who were beyond saving and turned those he could save into serial winners. Professionalism took on a new meaning at the club.
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck is not Alex Ferguson, but after last year’s dramatic and humbling 60-21 quarterfinal defeat against the Chiefs at Newlands, the nagging feeling at the back of his mind that things needed to change was galvanised.
He saw what NZ clubs were doing and in professional terms the Stormers and South African rugby in general were way behind them.
I had coffee with Fleck after last year’s tournament and he told me then that the players weren’t fit enough and they didn’t truly understand what it was to be a professional.
As a young coach he was off to spend time with Eddie Jones and others to learn from people who ooze the concept of professionalism.
At that stage Paul Feeney, the NZ skills coach, was in Cape Town to examine the Stormers set up and give feedback from a different perspective.
He assured Fleck that in terms of tactics and drills, the Stormers were doing everything top NZ teams were doing. The only difference he felt was that they didn’t train with the same intensity, and the players did the minimum expected of professionals, rather than going the extra mile.
It was something Fleck already inherently knew, but an outside voice galvanised his thinking and gave him the confidence to set the franchise on a new path.
Up-skilling was essential, but it couldn’t happen in isolation. To play like the best NZ sides, players would have to be able to maintain high tempo and intensity for 85 minutes. How many times have the All Blacks won matches in the last 10 minutes, either through scoring critical points, or rebutting wave upon wave of attacks?
Conditioning had to change and fitness coach Steph du Toit travelled with Fleck as they gathered data for the new regime. Fleck admitted some players would fall by the wayside under his new methods, and he would be unpopular at times. But he also knew that doing nothing would mean treading water for a few more years before eventually moving on, having achieved little as NZ teams rode off into the professional sunset.
He empowered a young leadership group under Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth, who have taken the change as a challenge to be better. They’ve recognised that they are better players because they are fitter and more skilled.
The Stormers are far from the finished product, and they still have a lot of work to do on all aspects of their play – from conditioning to skills and gameplan. But they are moving forward at a pace that is staggering.
And with each win, every attacking play that unlocks a tight defence and every bit of scrambling defence when they’re out on their feet, the team grows. Players are seeing and feeling the benefits despite a brutal preseason that took them to the edge of their capabilities.
Fleck is strangely never spoken of as a future Bok coach because there is a sense he’s still that party-loving rock star centre from a previous generation, rather than an astute and perceptive coach who is unafraid of being challenged by his assistants. And that’s fine because he is a long way from wanting, or needing that poisoned chalice in his life.
Beating the Chiefs last weekend was validation for the path Fleck set the Stormers on last year. He needed to see what his side could do against the best and measure how far they’ve come. It’s a very long way, but the road ahead is still full of pitfalls and obstacles.
At least, in this Stormers environment, they will figure a way round them eventually, because they have embraced true professionalism.