At the end of the double round of festive season derbies, DHL Stormers coach John Dobson was looking at a potential scenario where he’d be able to box clever and manage his players during the under-strength phase of derbies that coincide with the Six Nations and the Springbok resting period.
The wins over the Vodacom Bulls two nights before Christmas and the Emirates Lions on New Year’s Eve both netted five points, and put the Stormers comfortably ahead in the race for Shield honours and also the battle for the top two position that would secure home ground advantage through the play-off phase up until the semifinal round.
But the late win by Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun, a match the Stormers were in position to win but crucial errors not to mention some questionable refereeing calls cost them, changed the outlook. It meant this past weekend’s game against Ulster, where the Stormers were always going to be up against it and where Dobson would like to have played with a complete second string team, became more important.
The travel challenge did also tie Dobson’s hands, which was why several top players, meaning even those not made unavailable due to Springbok resting protocols, did not make the trip. The Stormers had just returned from the northern hemisphere on the Tuesday to play Clermont-Auvergne in the Heineken Champions Cup before jetting off again the following Sunday, in other words just five days at home, for Belfast via Doha and Dublin.
With a crucial derby against the Cell C Sharks to come this weekend, it did make sense to rest the likes of Joseph Dweba, Dan du Plessis, Deon Fourie, Neethling Fouche, Manie Libbok (who could have played in Belfast), Paul de Wet and a few others by sparing them another long and potentially debilitating journey to the northern hemisphere.
So although the Stormers management did make all the right noises in the build-up, and it is true that South African teams are going to have to stop thinking in terms of A and B teams given the nature of the URC, Ulster became a depth assessing exercise as much as anything else. In that sense, the Stormers did get something out of the trip.
“I thought Ruben van Heerden in his first game for us confirmed his quality, Andre-Hugo Venter was also huge when he came on as a replacement, but the guy who really impressed me was Marcel Theunissen, who was all over the place and really worked hard,” said Dobson.
Theunissen played because of the injury that ruled Junior Pokomela out of the game shortly before kick-off, while Venter came into the match day squad as a looseforward back-up but ended playing as the third hooker after Scarra Ntubeni ended up on the field after just three minutes due to the concussion suffered by JJ Kotze that saw him stretchered from the field.
“Scarra wasn’t ready to play a full match after his long layoff,” confirmed Dobson.
Van Heerden was also called upon quite early in the game, while Jean-Luc du Plessis was also concussed and that necessitated a hasty rejigging of the backline.
“I said to the guys afterwards in the changeroom that you can get upset in games where you don’t think turned up and you let off your opposition, but within 16 minutes of the game starting we were without our No 2, No 6, No 8, No 10 and No 15 from the initial team. There just wasn’t time to readjust and that contributed to us being well beaten,” said Dobson.
However, while he wasn’t upset about the defeat, and realistically wouldn’t have expected more than maybe a solitary bonus point from the game at best, Dobson does acknowledge that the last two results have made it much more difficult for his team than he’d hoped.
“I hear the Bulls went down and it is a weird competition isn’t it where you have to hope a fellow South African team loses to an overseas team, but that does help us a bit in the Shield as it means we haven’t lost ground to the Bulls,” said Dobson.
“But what we did see was a massive swing in favour of Ulster, who picked up five points and are now breathing down our necks for second place. We know how important it is for us to try and finish as high as possible on the overall log as it secures home play-offs through to the semifinal, but Ulster are now right up there. We will have to hope they lose some of their derbies so we can get back into it.
“We have picked up just one point from our last two games and that is a setback for us. It means we have lost the breathing space we had and we are going to have to win at least one of our next two games against the Sharks and the Bulls, with both of those games being away.”
Fortunately for Dobson, while the latest injuries will weigh on him, he says he is expecting Gary Porter and even wing Seabelo Senatla to join the rested players in being available for Durban.