Stormers showed great character but need to improve

rugby22 January 2024 08:35| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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DHL Stormers © X, formerly Twitter

The DHL Stormers might feel they drew the short straw in having to play champions La Rochelle in their Investec Champions Cup round of 16 fixture in Cape Town in April, but then at the start of the competition they might have bitten off your hand just to qualify for that stage.

When the draw for the elite European competition was made last year, it seemed there was a real prospect that the Stormers might be dropping to the EPCR Challenge Cup at this point. The team that finishes fifth in each Pool goes to the Challenge Cup, with the top four advancing to the round of 16.

That was because the pool the Stormers were in was the equivalent of the Rugby World Cup ‘Pool of Death’ that the Springboks, Ireland and Scotland were part of in France last September and October. They had both of the finalists from the last two years, La Rochelle and Leinster, in the group, the traditionally powerful English clubs Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks, plus the much revered French team Stade Francais.

They had to open against the Tigers away before facing La Rochelle, a mighty team if ever there was one, in their first home match just six days later. That made it impossible for the Stormers to go full strength for both, and ultimately it was because they missed out on a deserved losing bonus point against the Tigers that they now have to face such formidable opposition in the first playoff game.


Yet a home game at this stage of the competition was surely more than the Stormers coach John Dobson would have dreamed of at the start, given that he had both La Rochelle and Leinster in his group. La Rochelle finishing outside of the top two in the group is one of the big stories of this edition of the Champions Cup so far.

So a plum home fixture against the champions in front of what should be a massive crowd is certainly not something the Stormers will scoff at, and their 24-20 win over Stade Francais to secure their home-ground advantage was also another instance of them demonstrating that they have established a winning habit.

It certainly wasn’t a game they looked likely to win as the game went beyond the 50-minute mark, at which point Dobson should have been frustrated. The Stormers don’t boast a good record overseas, and all the same reasons for that had been in evidence, with Stade Francais seizing on several soft moments from their opponents in getting their early advantage.

Like in the home game against La Rochelle, however, the Stormers profited from a bit of luck. The decision to disallow an early second-half try that would have put Stade Francais out of sight was the right one, but Stormers skipper Deon Fourie could easily have let it go. It was his query to referee Luke Pearce that brought the review that went the Stormers’ way.


It was that moment that was the turning point in the game, according to Dobson.

“Once they didn’t score that try, when Deon intervened, I thought we got on top of them. I was frustrated that it took so long,” said an elated Dobson after the game.

Almost predictably, the coach hailed his team’s character, something they showed in abundance in the four home games they won in succession across two competitions in December and the early part of January.

“We are thrilled with the result. Those were incredibly tough conditions. During the game, you could visibly see the field freezing and players getting cold. We have never played in conditions like that,” said the Stormers coach.

“To qualify with a home playoff from the ‘Pool of Death’ is extraordinary. So we are very happy.”


Dobson had a big hand in the turnaround with his use of the bench, with the substitutions changing the course of the game in the same way that Jurgen Klopp does with Liverpool in a different sport. The arrival on the field of former Stade Francais stalwart Hendre Stassen in particular but also the likes of Ben-Jason Dixon, Hacjivah Dayimani and Andre-Hugo Venter made a massive difference to the game’s momentum.

“That was the plan generally. They made a huge difference. It made a massive difference in the pack and brought us real energy.”

Indeed, but Dobson should still be a bit concerned by what preceded the arrival of the replacement players, for there was a long period where the Stormers were woeful in protecting their possession and there were also times when they looked like they were taking the helter-skelter of DHL Stadium to a northern hemisphere game where it was just out of place.

The manner in which the Stormers got outmuscled at the breakdowns, often just cleaned off the ball, should be a huge concern given the known strengths of a La Rochelle team that perhaps started the trend of visiting teams smashing the Stormers in those areas back in December.


The Stormers won that match mainly because of their scrumming, with the La Rochelle players acknowledging them afterwards as the best scrum they’d faced, and it was the case again in Paris - the scrum is definitely not an area the Stormers need improving. Given how the Cape unit monstered their opponents from the beginning until one last scrum where almost unbelievably the hosts forced a penalty, it was bizarre that the game was as close as it was.

With Springbok World Cup winner Frans Malherbe, possibly the best tighthead prop in the world, due to return for the Stormers’ next competitive game against the Hollywoodbets Sharks in the coastal Vodacom United Rugby Championship derby in Durban in mid-February, there is no denying the potency packed by the Cape scrumming culture.

It is something La Rochelle will remember from the pool game played on a hot summer’s afternoon and for which they will be ready. But the Stormers have two tough URC derbies, with another away game against the Bulls set for early March, plus home URC fixtures against Edinburgh and Ulster, between now and their next Champions Cup engagement. They have time to make the improvements they need to make before they face the unenviable task of making it two from two in the season against the European champions.