It may be called the South African conference, but all the evidence is pointing towards a certain Argentinian side finishing the season atop it.
After most often being a reliably solid Super Rugby team so far this decade, the Stormers had an awful season in 2018 which saw them barely escape finishing bottom of their conference. Can they turn it around in 2019?
Coach: Robbie Fleck
Captain: Siya Kolisi
Major signings: Corne Fourie (Lions), Ruhan Nel (rugby sevens)
Major departures: JC Janse van Rensburg (Grenoble), Nizaam Carr (Wasps), Dewaldt Duvenage (Benetton), Raymond Rhule (Grenoble)
Siya Kolisi (c), Kwenzo Blose, Neethling Fouche, Steven Kitshoff, Michael Kumbirai, Wilco Louw, Frans Malherbe, Lee-Marvin Mazibuko, Alistair Vermaak, Bongi Mbonambi, Scarra Ntubeni, Chad Solomon, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Salmaan Moerat, JD Schickerling, Ernst van Rhyn, Chris van Zyl, Johan du Toit, Chris Massyn, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Cobus Wiese, Nama Xaba, Juarno Augustus, Jaco Coetzee, Kobus van Dyk, Paul de Wet, Herschel Jantjies, Justin Phillips, Jano Vermaak, Jean-Luc du Plessis, Joshua Stander, Damian Willemse, Damian de Allende, Daniel du Plessis, JJ Engelbrecht, Dan Kriel, Ruhan Nel, EW Viljoen, Dillyn Leyds, Sergeal Petersen, Duncan Saal, Seabelo Senatla, Edwill van der Merwe, Craig Barry, SP Marais.
Won 6, lost 10, finished fourth in the South African Conference, 11th overall
2018 was a supremely disappointing season for the Stormers, whose total of six wins for the year was the fewest they’ve recorded since 2009.
After finishing in the top three six times in eight years prior to last season, to fall well short of the finals and only narrowly avoid being bottom of the South Africa conference was a major disappointment.
Robbie Fleck, coaching the Stormers for his third year after replacing Allister Coetzee in 2016, came under heavy fire during the year and might consider himself a little lucky to still be leading the franchise in 2019.
In particular, the season was marred off the field by an ongoing feud between assistant coaches Paul Treu and Paul Feeney, the final resolution to which still remains unclear.
The Stormers don’t have a lot to pride themselves on after such poor season, but a powerful pack and strong forward depth would be at the top of the list.
Experienced international locks Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit lead the way here, but along with Springboks captain Siya Kolisi, Stephen Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi and Sikhumbuzo Notshe, they make a strong group.
While they were poor on the road last year, the Stormers were impressive at home, winning six of their eight matches, and will look to produce similar results in 2019.
Coaching is where the majority of the blame has been laid for the Stormers’ unimpressive 2019 season, in-house feuding appearing to be a significant reason behind their poor performance.
Captain Siya Kolisi also had his leadership questioned at times – his form was often inconsistent, mirroring that of the team.
The Stormers largely lack players with any significant international experience in their backs, making it unsurprising that they finished season 2018 with the fewest tries scored of any side.
They were also the second-worst side in the league last year for offloads (126) and metres carried (6259), offering little threat with their running game.
2019 looms as a make or break season for the Stormers, who can either bounce back from their woeful 2018, or remain stuck in the lower section of the table.
If they do the latter then it would seem likely that significant changes will be made to the team to correct course, and Robbie Fleck may find himself under serious pressure.
A big year from developing fly-half Damian Willemse would be a win for the Stormers. The 20-year-old broke through for four international caps last year and it would really boost the team’s fortunes if he can take the next step.
Sadly, without a clear resolution to last year’s coaching problems, it’s hard to see the Stormers making a dramatic improvement on 2018.
Prediction: Fifth in the South African Conference, 12th overall