Hosting The Final Is DHL Stormers’ Reward For Consistency


The DHL Stormers might feel the stars aligned for them when two shock playoff results set up a run of home games that have resulted in Saturday’s DHL Stadium Vodacom United Rugby Championship final against Munster, but they should see it as a reward for their consistency.

They did have to rely on outside help in the form of Connacht winning their quarterfinal against Ulster and then Leinster being toppled by Munster, but they would not have been hosting a second successive final had they not again ended in the upper reaches of the log table. If you come second or third, as they have over the past two seasons, you put yourself in line to benefit from a bit of potential luck.

The Stormers were second behind Leinster for most of the season and would have thought they’d blown a chance of hosting a semi-final when they lost narrowly to Munster in the penultimate game of the league phase. That dropped them to third, but it was a close third, with them and Ulster ending on the same number of log points but Ulster was given second place because they’d scored more wins (once again the Stormers included two draws in the results column).

And yet if you engaged a time machine to take Stormers coach John Dobson back to the start of the season, he’d probably have accepted a third-place finish if he’d been offered it. Indeed, he might have thought it was more than he bargained for in a season where he wanted to be competitive to prove last year was no fluke, but where he didn’t harbour too many hopes of retaining the URC trophy.

Making the qualification bracket for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup was again a primary goal, as was the growth of depth he felt was required in order to become consistently competitive across both competitions. To that end, he made no secret of the fact he was spreading the net early and experimenting in certain positions and saw it as a plus for the Stormers that when the competition had reached the halfway mark he had used more players than any other team.

Like the other South African teams, the Stormers were forced to go under-strength in the early games because of the clash with the final stages of the Castle Lager Rugby Championship, which gave players like the precociously talented 19-year-old Suleiman Hartzenberg a chance to shine.

Hartzenberg used both at wing and centre early on, never let the coach down, and neither did any of the other players who got the exposure they needed at URC level. Connacht were seen off in Stellenbosch in the first game and another of the Stormers’ early victims was Edinburgh, who they’d beaten in the quarterfinal stage of the previous season.

Their first tour of the competition was to Italy and Wales, with a significantly under-strength side winning comfortably in Parma against Zebre with Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu as the stand-out player as Dobson continued to grow his depth.

It didn’t go that well but then a draw against the Ospreys in the inclement weather they played in that night wasn’t a bad result, and it could easily have been a win. When they lost for the first time since the middle of the previous season in Cardiff, they did score four tries to two, and on that basis were unlucky to go down.

In fact, if you look back at those two results, plus the last-gasp defeat to Glasgow Warriors at the Scotstoun, all of them results that could easily have gone the Stormers’ way, it is possible to argue that the Cape team were unlucky not to finish comfortably second and a lot closer to log leaders Leinster than was the case.

And yet the Stormers were for a long time ahead of the game, meaning that they were doing better than Dobson expected, something he said repeatedly during the months of October and November when they were already comfortably ensconced in the top three and moving away from any potential threat to their Champions Cup status.

The travel was an obstacle like it was for all the South African teams, and the one big URC defeat came against Ulster in Belfast when there was hardly a first-choice player apart from Evan Roos, who got injured that night, and Ruhan Nel in the team. The method of that decision not to take the top team to Ulster was vindicated when the Stormers thumped the Sharks, who’d scored a good away win over Edinburgh the week before, in Durban the following week.

A game that Dobson might not have initially been expecting to win was the return league clash in Pretoria against the Vodacom Bulls. Before the comprehensive win over their arch-rivals in Cape Town two nights before Christmas, Dobson stressed the importance of it on the grounds that he wasn’t expecting to get anything from the under-strength trip to Loftus in February as the Boks would be absent.

The gutsy win the Stormers scored in front of 42 000 mainly Bulls fans was a big moment in their season as they were missing several players while the Bulls were without just two Boks. It was on that basis that the Bulls started as strong favourites but the Stormers showed their inconquerable spirit, something they share with Munster.

The Stormers’ dominance of the other local teams was a big part of their success, and if there is anything Dobson will look back on with regret, it is that his men didn’t get a bit more from their overseas games. However, they did make a strong point on what was to prove their last overseas trip for a URC game (they did travel again in the HCC) when they drew with Leinster in really miserable conditions in Dublin.

Perhaps one game which won’t get remarked on much but was also significant for different reasons was the good win over Scarlets at a time when Dobson was testing his depth so much it almost looked like the Stormers had a second-string team playing for them that night.

But the Stormers took control of the game from the outset and with young flyhalf Kade Wolhuter starring at the back and Gary Porter doing well at forward, it confirmed the growing depth. A different group of Stormers fringe players then did the business a week later in a home game that was played at Gqeberha’s Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

A player who had a breakout season after being on the fringes the previous year was Ben-Jason Dixon. The young forward is mainly considered a blindside flank but he is a versatile player and did a good job for the Stormers at lock both against the Bulls before Christmas and again when he was called up because of the injury concerns to Marvin Orie in the URC semi-final against Connacht.

Mention of Connacht and the memory of Ruben van Heerden playing at No5 lock in that game cues Dobson’s excellent talent-acquiring skills. With Springbok Salmaan Moerat ruled out by an injury sustained against London Irish in the Champions Cup in December, and then further injuries to Adre Smith and Ernst van Rhyn, the former Sharks lock answered an SOS call and moved from Exeter Chiefs and proved an outstanding acquisition who perfectly fitted the game-plan.

The Stormers comfortably retained their South African Shield won in the first season and always looked likely to finish second or third overall so drawing a fellow South African team in the quarterfinal, meaning the opposition didn’t have far to travel, was seen as a potential banana peel. But the Stormers showed great nerve in drumming out a 33-21 win over the Bulls that was more comprehensive than that scoreline might suggest.

That was a quasi-final for the Stormers in the sense that they knew they had a lot to lose and the way they handled that pressure should give them confidence for the final.

DHL Stormers’ road to the Vodacom United Rugby Championship final
Stormers 38 Connacht 15
Stormers 34 Edinburgh 18
Zebre 20 Stormers 37
Ospreys 16 Stormers 16
Cardiff 30 Stormers 24
Emirates Lions 22 Stormers 31
Stormers 36 Scarlets 19
Stormers 34 Dragons 26
Stormers 37 Vodacom Bulls 27
Stormers 40 Emirates Lions 8
Glasgow Warriors 24 Stormers 17
Ulster 35 Stormers 5
Cell C Sharks 19 Stormers 46
Vodacom Bulls 19 Stormers 23
Stormers 29 Sharks 23
Leinster 22 Stormers 22
Stormers 24 Munster 26
Stormers 38 Benetton 22
Quarterfinal: Stormers 33 Bulls 21
Semi-final: Stormers 43 Connacht 25
Grand Final: Stormers v Munster (DHL Stadium, Saturday 18.30)

Stormers results in the first season of Heineken Champions Cup

Pool stages
Clermont Auvergne 24 Stormers 14
Stormers 34 London Irish 14
London Irish 14 Stormers 28
Stormers 30 Clermont Auvergne 16
Round of 16: Stormers 32 Harlequins 28
Quarterfinal: Exeter Chiefs 42 Stormers 17