An impressive home record is one trait that has been common to Super Rugby contenders over the years, and this means the Stormers are much closer to silverware than many may think.
There’s no denying that the Cape side is in trouble. A six-match losing streak away from home and only four wins to speak of in 2018 means that you have to go all the way back to 2009 to find a worse start to a Stormers campaign. For a team that has topped their conference five times in the past seven seasons, it’s unfamiliar territory.
Under Robbie Fleck, the Stormers have won just eight (or 38%) of 21 away matches, including four wins against teams that are no longer participating in Super Rugby. Leading up to Round 11, only the Bulls (32%), Jaguares (32%), Rebels (29%), Reds (11%), and Sunwolves (0%) had fared worse during the same period.
It’s a damning statistic for a team that boasted a 73% away record between 2010 and 2012. However, while Fleck’s team has been poor on the road, they’ve been near unbeatable at home where Newlands has proven to be one of the true fortresses of Super Rugby. Since the beginning of 2016, the Stormers have won 16 of their 19 home games during the regular season for a success rate of 84%.
That’s better than the Chiefs (83%) and Lions (81%) while only the Hurricanes (90%) and Crusaders (89%) have been more difficult to beat at home in that time.
This in a competition where the advantage of playing at home has slipped in recent seasons. Of the 390 regular season Super Rugby matches played between 2015 and 2017, only 56% were won by the home team – compare that to the Pro12 (63%), English Premiership (65%) and Top14 (71%).
Some may (rather credibly) argue that Fleck and his charges have been aided by a lopsided tournament structure that saw them avoid the New Zealand sides during 2016’s regular season, and compete in a comparatively weak conference that was made up of the struggling Sunwolves, now-axed Cheetahs and underperforming Bulls. But the Stormers could only play what was in front of them, and they’ve fronted up at home when more threatening teams have visited.
There was the tactically-dominant 31-11 win over the Brumbies in 2016 (who had thumped the Hurricanes 52-10 a few weeks’ prior), the Test-match like 34-26 victory over the Chiefs last year, and a truly masterful 37-20 triumph against the Blues earlier this season (who had beaten the Lions in Johannesburg one week earlier).
Fleck’s Stormers don’t just win at home, but they win comfortably, claiming an average margin of 14 points.
And yet, their momentum and form in front of the Newlands faithful has not masked their spectacular shortcomings whenever they’re asked to go on the road, or play under the pressure of playoff rugby.
The disparity between the Stormers team that plays at home and the one that plays away suggests that their frailties are not due to a lack of ability, but rather a lack of belief. The good news is that where correcting the former takes a significant amount of time, the latter can be overcome in a single game.
History tells us that a team can lose as many as three away games in the regular season and still go on to win the title — the 2014 champion Waratahs lost as many as four.
It’s at home that teams with title ambitions have far less room for error. None of the last seven champions lost more than two home matches in the regular season, while all but two lost one home match or less. Assuming their form at Newlands continues, the Stormers’ lowly position on the standings belies a potential title contender, even if their 2018 campaign has effectively come and gone.
There’s a storm quietly brewing in Cape Town, and it’s closer to striking than you may think.
Follow Joshua on Twitter: @balcolmbbrown
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