Road to the final: There’s nothing lucky about Stormers playing host

rugby24 May 2023 15:30| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich

At the start of the buildup to Saturday’s Vodacom United Rugby Championship final against Munster, DHL Stormers coach John Dobson appeared almost embarrassed that his team was hosting another competition decider.


He said that he knew the Stormers had been lucky, not just in getting to play this one at home, but also the inaugural final last year against the Vodacom Bulls.

But Dobson is being hard on himself and unnecessarily self-deprecating, for getting two consecutive home finals has nothing to do with luck, and everything to do with the consistency his team showed through the URC league season.

It was because they finished in the top part of the log - second in 2022 and effectively tied second in 2023 - that the Cape team found themselves in a position to take advantage when other sides that finished in the upper reaches of the log failed.

If they hadn’t been second, they wouldn’t have hosted last year’s final when the top team, Leinster got knocked out, and ditto this year, when Leinster and Ulster failed during the playoff stage.

It was because they finished in the top four that they are playing at home and Munster aren’t, and although Munster gathered momentum as the season went on and are finishing like a runaway train, the 13 point difference between the teams showed that the Stormers were more consistent. And consistency should be rewarded.

Leinster finished top so they deserved to play all their playoff games at home. It just so happened Munster were good enough to beat them and rob them of a chance of hosting the final.

It is easy to feel sorry for the other Irish province Ulster, who were given an opening to finish second when the Stormers lost their penultimate league game against Munster but then blew it against the seventh ranked team in their home quarterfinal.

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The Stormers were in the top two for most of the season and only dropped out following the two-point loss to Munster. Even then, they ended with the same number of log points as Ulster, with the second spot going to Ulster on a technicality, so it’s not as if the Stormers were far away.

And yet if you engaged a time machine to take 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 teams.


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 Wales and 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 week after they returned to South Africa.


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 unconquerable 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.

Until the Bulls beat the under-strength Leinster side at Loftus in the final league game and then Munster and LaRochelle joined the party in URC and HCC playoff games respectively, that was the only time Leinster hadn’t ended on the winning side.


The Stormers’ only home defeat, which was the two point reverse to Saturday’s opponents, came in the week they returned from their disappointing HCC quarterfinal loss to Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park, which in turn came not long after their trip to Dublin for the Leinster game. So there was inevitable fatigue.

Still, it was a disappointing performance from the Stormers in the sense that they conspired against themselves, and they will be hoping the sublime current form of Manie Libbok, who missed several kicks at posts that afternoon, continues and he doesn’t return to the waywardness of that game.

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, who coach Dobson should give serious consideration to playing at blindside flank in the final if he reckons the conditions will require a tight game.

Dixon is versatile 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 semifinal against Connacht.

Mention of Connacht and the memory of Ruben van Heerden playing at No 5 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.

Another player who has started to come through really well for the Stormers after only being introduced late in the 2022 campaign is young Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu, who after his starring role at inside centre in a good away win against Zebre with another very under-strength Stormers team briefly attracted the attention of the then England coach Eddie Jones.

Joseph Dweba was the most significant off season arrival from outside of the Cape and showed signs of backing up Dobson’s prediction that he will become a Cape cult hero in time, while former Cheetahs fullback brought his X-factor in patches without ever really looking like an adequate replacement for the departed Warrick Gelant.


The Stormers always looked likely to finish second or third and drawing a fellow South African team in the quarterfinal 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.


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

Semifinal: Stormers 43 Connacht 25

Grand Final: Stormers v Munster (DHL Stadium, Saturday 6:30pm)


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