Paul Feeney embracing Stormers role in South African rugby's transitional period

The Stormers beat the Chiefs in Cape Town two weeks ago to highlight their improvement this season.
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The Stormers beat the Chiefs in Cape Town two weeks ago to highlight their improvement this season.

Immersed in South African rugby's tumultuous transition is a New Zealander trying to make sense of it all.

Five-and-a-half months ago Paul Feeney, the former Auckland head coach and Blues assistant, agreed to help former Springboks midfielder Robbie Fleck with a three-year vision at the Stormers.

Feeney's arrival in picturesque Cape Town coincided with South African rugby hitting its lowest ebb in the professional era. Last year the Springboks won four of 12 tests, including a record  57-15 mauling from the All Blacks in Durban. The Boks plummeted to seventh in the world rankings, all of which instigated major change.

Former Auckland and Blues coach Paul Feeney has found a home at the Stormers in Cape Town.

Former Auckland and Blues coach Paul Feeney has found a home at the Stormers in Cape Town.

The rumour mill remains in overdrive, suggesting among other things under-fire Boks coach Allister Coetzee needs a dramatic turnaround in the three test home series against France in June to save his job, as Rassie Erasmus, director of rugby at Munster, potentially waits in the wings.

Regardless of those potential permutations, the South African Rugby Union has moved swiftly to improve its ailing fortunes, and begin the rebuild.  

Two, three-day Springboks training camps have already been held this year; along with three meetings in the past four months between Coetzee and the six Super Rugby head coaches to discuss a shared vision to play the game and gain more alignment.

Stormers coach Robbie Fleck hired Paul Feeney to work alongside him.
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Stormers coach Robbie Fleck hired Paul Feeney to work alongside him.

"Those sort of things have never really happened before and are things that we take for granted in New Zealand," Feeney said. "They realise they are behind. They weren't happy with their performances on the international stage last year and where they are ranked in the world now.

"They're working alongside each other a lot more and trying to improve where South Africa is going. I'm sure they'll be back. There's a lot of talent in that country - and they're proud. By the 2019 World Cup there's no reason they can't be back where they were."

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Notably, South Africa has agreed in principal to cut two teams - expected to be the Southern Kings and Cheetahs, who are likely to merge with the Lions - in order to strength its Super Rugby base from next year.

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"Some people are against it in South Africa because in certain areas you won't have a professional team.
But not having it watered down by six teams and making everyone stronger you will see a higher level of rugby. I think it will definitely help."

Through age-group and its university ranks South Africa remains as strong as ever. But the weak Rand (1-9 NZD) and offshore pull continues to strip away too much top-tier talent. The latest policy to retain emerging stars is the Boks can only select overseas-based players who have featured in 30 tests or more.

"That hurts them a lot. New Zealand has two or three go and we cry foul. South Africa have five or six times as many go overseas. If you look at a starting line-up in Europe at the moment it's pretty impressive with [Duane] Vermeulen, Bryan Habana, Schalk Burger and the likes. The weak Rand is a big challenge and the money they can demand overseas but that's the nature of the beast."

With its quota regulations and passionate support base, South African rugby is testing for any coach but also has its upsides. The Stormers, after six wins from seven games this year - achieved without injured Boks midfielders Damian de Allende and Juan de Jongh - arrive at every home match with hundreds gathered to greet the team bus at their Newlands base.

"I try keep out of the politics and being an outsider I don't understand it all but I've had a few things explained to me. From a coaching perspective you've got to know the different people you've got in your team from Afrikaans, English and coloured backgrounds. It is challenging but getting the best out of people is exciting."

Embracing a more free, attractive brand of rugby this year has worked for the Stormers - and brought back locals, with over 40,000 witnessing their loss to the Lions last week. But we'll learn much more about Fleck's men after four games against Kiwi opposition over the next four weeks, starting with the unbeaten Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday.

Last year the Stormers made the quarter finals without playing any New Zealand teams, only to be thumped 60-21 in their own backyard by the Chiefs.

"Getting that hiding from the Chiefs last year is what's made the difference. Robbie Fleck realised they were falling behind and he's driven change around mindset and a focus on individual skills. That's why they wanted to get someone from overseas to help and bring different ideas. I'm in for the long haul."

After the Super Rugby season Feeney can look forward to the probability of the All Blacks playing their first test in Cape Town for nine years.

By October the rebuild will be far from complete but at least it is underway.

"The South Africans normally make the All Blacks play on the high veldt but there's a group in Cape Town called the cape colours and they love the All Blacks. They will have so much support - just about more than the Springboks. At this stage it is looking good that the game will be staged at Newlands which would be fantastic."

 - Stuff


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