STORMERS SEASON REVIEW: One blip is allowable

football12 June 2024 08:31
By:Gavin Rich
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Evan Roos © Gallo Images

To most of those who have followed the DHL Stormers closely over the past few years, there was something that coach John Dobson said after his team exited the Vodacom United Rugby Championship in the quarterfinal stage that should have come across as ridiculous.

“So we belong at the top table of the URC. It was important to confirm that. We aren’t just a flash in the pan. Going to two finals and then finishing fifth this season proved that,” said Dobson.

No, that is most emphatically wrong, Dobbo. Your team did not prove this season that what came before this one in the URC was a flash in the plan. You’d already done that last year. That the Stormers belong at the top table of the URC and will in time become proper challengers in Europe too is beyond debate.

The Stormers finished second on the URC log in the first season before winning the competition through the playoff phase and they came a close third to Ulster last year before progressing again to a final. This season they finished fifth, were forced to travel away for the first time for the opening game of the Finals Series and lost in a much closer game than the end score would suggest.

Yes, the Stormers do belong at the top table, and feeling you need to point that out to someone is on the same level as feeling the need to tell everyone that while you did give an attractive person of the opposite sex a lift when he/she was broken down at the side of the road and desperately needing help, that does not mean you are having a relationship with him/her or are in love. In most cases (okay maybe not all), that kind of goes without saying.


One of the consequences of success though is that you start to get judged on the standards you set. And while the Stormers did recover well from their disastrous November tour when they lost every game in four starts, finishing fifth and their season ending two games before the proper end was a blip. Dobson will be the first to admit that.

Next year he will want to get back into the top four and thus secure home advantage in at least the first playoff game. That should be the minimum expectation given how the Stormers have progressed and given the success Dobson has had in both securing the return of two influential former stalwarts, Steven Kitshoff and JD Schickerling, and the signatures of all the key players for the next three years.

Of course, Hacjivah Dayimani’s departure will be felt when it comes to the X-factor and linking he brings to the Stormers’ attacking and transition game. He showed a pleasing willingness to play towards the ball in a quarterfinal in Glasgow that should turn out to be his last game (at least for now, I suspect he might be like Warrick Gelant/Kitshoff and soon want to return).

Nama Xaba also leaves a hole given that he would have been the next cab off the rank to Deon Fourie when it comes to ball scavenging openside flankers. However, in his case, he was hardly ever available because of injury, so the Stormers were probably always going to have to look elsewhere when it comes to their succession planning for life after Fourie.

For the rest though, there aren’t any other players leaving that we know of who were regular members of the first-choice team or even the matchday 23, and you could argue that now that Ben-Jason Dixon has flourished and matured into a genuine Bok contending loose-forward, Dayimani wouldn’t be in the run on team when Fourie is fit.


While their rivals from up the coast, the Hollywoodbets Sharks, have been building their squad into what they hope will become a title-challenging unit by buying in players, the Stormers’ focus has been on retaining the big talents that will realise their full potential between now and 2027.

Ironically, the biggest week of the Stormers’ season was probably the one where they squandered their chance of making it into the top four by losing to the Ospreys. It was in the days before that game that it was announced that Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu would be among those staying.

Feinberg-Mngomezulu is such a precociously talented player and has such massive potential that it would have been completely understandable, seeing he has yet to become a first-choice Stormers player when everyone is fit, had he gone somewhere where game time would be more guaranteed.

Dobson has said it, and he’s right - Feinberg-Mngomezulu is a generational player. Bok legend Victor Matfield isn’t alone in thinking he will be the next big thing at flyhalf, although he is also equipped to make it at centre.

In the drought years for the Stormers, when they had talent up front and out wide but never won anything, the lack of a world-class flyhalf was often pointed to as the reason. They now have that. In fact, they have two, with Manie Libbok also a Stormers player until at least 2027. Jurie Matthee, so good on the fleeting occasions he did play for the Stormers this season, has great potential too.

The Stormers have a decent pack and they will always have potent outside backs coming out of their ears, so the fact they have so many good players in the game driving positions, and let’s not forget that Damian Willemse may play fullback for the Boks but is a very decent flyhalf in addition to being a top class No 12. So, the Stormers should be strong contenders for the foreseeable future. Perhaps more than that.


The Stormers finalised their equity deal during the course of this season and while for now they won’t be breaking the bank as the books need to be balanced after years of financial strife in Cape rugby, they do now have more financial clout. And as important, if not more so, than the quality they have in their squad, is the coaching group.

Dobson has created a great culture at the Stormers and having still met what we would have thought of as the minimum requirement after that disastrous tour, which is qualification for next season’s Investec Champions Cup, he shouldn’t be too upset with the so-called ‘blip’. It was probably always going to be a season of consolidation.

In some ways, this season reminded me a bit of Liverpool’s previous season to the most recently completed one in the Premier League, where they failed to make it into the Champions League and took a step backwards from where they’d been the year before (challenging for the quadruple). Although they faded at the end, they were back in the top challenging group this year and earned a return to the Champions League.

Provided Dobson doesn’t do what Jurgen Klopp did and decide he’s had enough of the pressure treadmill that comes with being a top-level coach/manager, the Stormers should be back to where they were in the first two seasons of the URC.

Not that it is going to be easy, for the URC is getting stronger, meaning teams are getting stronger. The Sharks aren’t going to carry on wallowing in the mud forever, and there are signs that under John Plumtree’s guidance, they are set to become top-four challengers next year, and there are other perennial challengers for the top four, like Ulster (they finished sixth), who could get better too.


Italian rugby is on the rise, so you wouldn’t bet against Benetton in time sustaining the strong challenge they were mounting for a top-four spot in the early parts of this past season. Mention of Benetton cues the subject of where it really went wrong in this campaign for the Stormers, which was the two games they lost on their first tour that they should have won.

The last one against Cardiff was the other, but the Benetton loss might have hurt most of all given that Joseph Dweba thought he’d won the game for his team when he dived over what he thought was the tryline only to discover he was five metres short.

That second game of the tour came at a time when the Stormers might still have been a bit complacent, with that complacency being something I thought I picked up in their big win over the Scarlets in Stellenbosch the week before they went on tour.

In the match report on that game, it was suggested the Stormers were playing like they were the Harlem Globetrotters, in other words focused as much on the desire to entertain as the need to win. The likes of Gelant in that game gave vent to their full bag of tricks, but Dobson readily admitted afterwards it was overdone.

Heads needed to be pulled back in, but they weren’t, or not soon enough, and the perception that they could razzle-dazzle their way through the season to another final was really what tripped the Stormers up on the calamitous tour that followed.

Leaving the Danie Craven Stadium that day back in October, it was hard to ignore the nagging feeling that the Stormers were getting a bit ahead of themselves. They probably were, and that left them with too much to do when they came back from tour.


They did show their pedigree by winning some massive high-pressure games, not least the two games that came within a week of each other, the Champions Cup pool game against La Rochelle and then the home derby against the Vodacom Bulls. Had they lost that second game in particular, it would have left them in a massive hole in the URC that would have left them struggling to make the top eight.

They won that game fairly comprehensively though, and towards the end of the season, they also showed their mettle and BMT by winning a tight game against Connacht in Galway. Another close away win secured at the death was the Champions Cup game against Stade Francais in Paris. Dobson is right when he says his team has shown growth.

Their last game though against Glasgow in the quarterfinal was a microcosm of the season overall, and could be likened to a Curate’s egg, in other words, good in parts and bad in parts.

With competition likely to be stiffer, the focus and performance are going to have to be intense on a consistent basis next season if they want to get back to making DHL Stadium a venue that hosts playoff games as a matter of course. They have built impressive depth, but have aspects of their game that need working on, and are going to have to find a way to marry flash with a bit more temperance.

What they do have though is the culture, they have the coaches and they have the players plus the depth - something that was writ large in the second string team’s strong showing against Leicester Tigers away - to get another feel of the trophy they won in the URC’s inaugural season.