There was much to enthuse over in a performance where his team dug incredibly deep to overcome the Cell C Sharks in their own sweltering humid conditions, but perhaps the biggest reason for DHL Stormers coach John Dobson to smile was the performance of his pack.
While the Stormers’ attacking game was to the fore, and Manie Libbok walked away with the Man of the Match award for how he made things happen around him at the back, it was the forwards who set up the 46-19 win over their coastal rivals that now re-establishes some breathing space for the champions on the Vodacom United Rugby Championship log.
The Stormers pack dominated their opponents, particularly in the scrums, where they forced four penalties in the first half alone. But here’s what made Dobson so happy: there was only one survivor on the field from the pack that took the field for last year’s URC final triumph against the Vodacom Bulls in Cape Town.
That was Deon Fourie, who was one of several players spared the trip to Ulster the previous week and who came good in the sub-tropical early afternoon humidity as the Stormers completed a rout in the most one-sided coastal derby in memory.
“I am very pleased with the depth we have created. Nobody thought we would win the URC in the first year, I think that surprised a lot of people, so our focus this year has been to be sustainable across the two competitions, actually three if you factor in the Currie Cup,” said Dobson.
“The key to that was to create depth, and there has been a real mindset change from us. In the past we would have panicked a bit had we lost both Evan Roos and Hacjivah Dayimani (effectively the top two Stormers No 8s) for the same game. But we all saw what Marcel Theunissen did in this game. That kind of thing is becoming the story of our season.
“To be honest, I think we still have a bit of work to do when it comes to creating depth among the backs. We saw that in Ulster last week when there were a few injuries. But at forward there is now very nice depth developing and I am really happy with that.”
EXTENT OF SCRUM DOMINANCE WAS UNEXPECTED
Given that in the opposition front row on Saturday there was still one Springbok in Nthuthuko Mchunu as well as an experienced hooker in Kerron van Vuuren plus a notably destructive scrummager in former Stormers and Lions tighthead Carlu Sadie, it was understandable that Dobson was a bit surprised at how easily his scrum dominated.
“I thought we would get the scrums later, to manage it so early surprised us,” said the Stormers coach, who last week was a deserved winner of the SA Rugby Coach of the Year Award.
“We know which players were missing and by the end we had some of our third and fourth choice players on the field, but we have some really good depth there. Brok Harris with his experience, Neethling Fouche is a really good tighthead, and Joseph Dweba is a great scrumming hooker. I thought we creaked a bit at the lineout after I took Gary Porter off, but the scrumming was outstanding.”
LOCK SITUATION IS SUDDENLY HEALTHY
Mention of Porter cues in another big reason for Dobson to be smiling - the Stormers lock crisis created by the injuries to players like Salmaan Moerat, Adre Smith and Ernst van Rhyn before Christmas has been largely forgotten following the excellent performances against the Sharks of former Sharks player Ruben van Heerden and Porter. Both players were instrumental in setting up the momentum that the Stormers enjoyed in the game, and Marvin Orie’s absence to the Bok resting protocols wasn’t felt.
“I am so chuffed with the contributions being made by Ruben and am very grateful to the administration for the work they did in securing his services for us. Having him is a great boost to us,” said Dobson.
“Gary is a Varsity Cup product but he is a lot like Marvin (Orie) in the way he runs the lineouts. Lock was a flash point for us so I am very pleased with the depth we suddenly have available there.”
BULLS IS NEXT CHALLENGE
The Stormers’ next challenge will be their big north/south return derby in Pretoria a fortnight from now, with the Bulls likely to be in a vengeful mood. The Bulls are less impacted by Springbok calls than the Stormers are and are always a different animal at home so will probably start as favourites to break for what them has been a four match losing sequence against their Cape rivals.
However the Stormers showed against the Sharks that even without the likes of rested Springboks Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and Orie, plus the injured Evan Roos, they remain formidable at forward and should give a full strength Bulls pack a good go.
With regards to that game, the Stormers were always looking to create a bit of a buffer between themselves and the Bulls on the log so that the game will become less critical to the battle for Shield supremacy, and although the loss to Glasgow in January was a set-back, the five points they picked up against the Sharks has pretty helped them achieve their objective. A loss at Loftus will hurt but not that much, whereas a win will effectively seal the Shield battle. The Stormers travel now with some degree of comfort.
MANIE LIKELY TO BE RESTED
Yet that does not mean that Dobson will send a second string team to Loftus, something he might have been considering a few weeks ago, certainly before the Glasgow defeat.
“We need to look at that. I think we will send up a bit of a mixed team, but it is a big north/south derby and the Bulls are putting a lot into making it an occasion, so we will bring our part. I think apart from Manie (Libbok), who I think needs a rest, we should have most of our top available players playing for us in the Pretoria game.”
So they should, for it isn’t only the local conference log that the Stormers should be worrying about. With a game in hand, Ulster are still breathing down the Cape team’s neck in the quest for second place and the advantage that will give them in the playoffs. A win over the Bulls will give the Stormers a significant lift in that quest.