The sound of a rugby union repeatedly shooting its feet
Loaded with talent, the Stormers should be in the Super Rugby running - but for internal strife ruining the team
On paper the 2019 Stormers squad is one of the best in the competition and certainly the best in SA. But rugby isn’t played on paper. This should be a team ready to challenge for the title – as abundant with Springboks as the Western Cape is with grapes.
Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Wilco Louw, Frans Malherbe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and Sikhumbuzo Notshe all represented the Boks in 2018. And that’s just in the pack.
Add the likes of Scarra Ntubeni and JD Schickerling who have both been Bok tourists, SA under-20 stars Juarno Augustus, Cobus Wiese, Salmaan Moerat and Ernst van Rhyn as well as Currie Cup winners such as Chris van Zyl and Ali Vermaak and it’s clear it’s as good a pack as any in the competition.
And the back division is liberally sprinkled with Boks as well. Damian de Allende, Dillyn Leyds, Damian Willemse, JJ Engelbrecht and Jano Vermaak have all had Test experience.
There are up and coming youngsters, seasoned veterans, and genuinely world class players. This should be a team that you could bet your house would make the playoffs. But that would be an unwise bet in the current climate.
Because off the field Western Province Rugby (WPR), the professional arm of the union, is embattled on several fronts and the disquiet is filtering down to the players.
The latest skirmish is a dispute with assistant coach Paul Treu. In itself it should not be a massive thing, as coaches and management often butt heads in the normal course of their jobs. But the Treu issue has had a direct effect on the players given that, as a part of the coaching staff for the past three years, a lot of trust built up, which has been shattered.
Treu made a formal complaint last year, claiming that he was the victim of discrimination and that he had been undermined. The exact contents of his 26-page complaint have not been made public, but it was serious enough for WPR to launch an independent investigation.
That investigation was carried out by law firm Bowmans and involved weeks of cross-examination. Lawyers grilled players, coaches and other members of staff (30 of them) over Treu’s claims.
It’s understood players were put through the wringer and were highly upset by the tone of the questioning based on the accusations made. When Bowmans concluded that they could find no evidence of any wrongdoing by any employee or office bearer of the WPR, Treu’s future employment should have been numbered in days and not months, as is the case.
If the Bowmans report dismissed all Treu’s allegations, which WPR claimed it did (although a request by this writer to read the full report was rejected), then why is he still at the union?
What trust remained was shattered and the majority of players want Treu out.
Then this weekend a Sunday paper suggested Treu, who appears to have a close ally in new WP president Zelt Marais, was in line to become the “performance director” at the union. Whether the story was 100% accurate or not, it was enough to spook the players. Many of them are in the final year of their contract cycles and are entering a renegotiation period.
Like any contract negotiation, there are many aspects to it, but the two most important are remuneration and leadership. The potential of Treu being their de facto boss as performance director had players and their agents concerned.
Which is why WPR top brass held what could only be termed a crisis meeting with the players on Monday. Players wanted clarity on future coaching structures and there is a strong faction that wants Treu removed.
The former Blitzbok coach has already been shifted sideways and has not been part of the Stormers’ pre-season coaching setup even though he hasn’t officially been relieved of his duties either.
Currie Cup coaches John Dobson, Dawie Snyman and Norman Laker have been assisting Robbie Fleck and it’s impossible to see a way back for Treu. Fleck is in the final year of his contract and is unlikely to stay on regardless of what happens this season, but many players and the likes of Dobson want to remain in Cape Town at the Stormers.
WPR chief executive Paul Zacks might well have a masterplan behind the scenes, but the Treu situation has been a PR disaster. The net result is angst among the playing group a fortnight from the start of Super Rugby.
The Bowmans report came out late last year, but the situation was allowed to fester until the eve of Super Rugby before predictably blowing up in WPR’s face. And once again WPR are in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
The Stormers could and should do well on paper. In reality, though, they’re likely to head into another season of dejection because the union’s leadership is constantly failing the players.