Dobson seeks improvement but has good selection headaches

rugby21 February 2024 06:19| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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John Dobson © Gallo Images

The Hollywoodbets Sharks appeared confident they might turn over the DHL Stormers when they went almost full strength against a team resting their Springboks but while the visiting coach John Dobson left Durban with an important win he wasn’t exactly a picture of jubilation afterwards.

That the Stormers felt they had let themselves down defensively and in other areas where they allowed the Sharks to come back at them in the second half of a game the Cape team had comprehensively dominated in the first might not be a good sign for the Vodacom Bulls ahead of what Dobson expects to be an epic Vodacom United Rugby Championship derby in Pretoria.

The two top South African teams clash at Loftus on 2 March in a game that has been much hyped, with more than 17 000 tickets reportedly already sold by the end of this past weekend, a fortnight out from the game. The Bulls will of course have revenge on their minds after losing in Cape Town in the first round and, not that anyone is likely to forget this, there’s also the matter of a losing sequence that now extends to seven matches that needs halting.

If you watched the Stormers dominate the Sharks in the early parts of the Hollywoodbets Kings Park game, you’d say the Cape side has reason to be confident. Durban hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for the Bulls recently, but the Stormers dealt with the challenge with almost contemptuous ease.


Until halftime that is, although even before that Dobson was concerned about what he described as an “iffy” defensive performance. And he was right, the Stormers did give the Sharks breathing space they shouldn’t have by allowing them back in when they looked on the brink of being properly suffocated.

“I am still feeling a bit iffy about it and I must give credit to the Sharks, because I don’t think we saw the Stormers defensive DNA. We weren’t making the reads and weren’t getting off the line. Defensively we were off,” said Dobson at the post-match press conference.

Why that could be significant in Pretoria a week and a half from now is that the Stormers have been good this season at improving areas that have been identified as a weakness. And anyone who knows the Stormers defence coach Norman Laker will know how determined and competitive he is. You can take it as read that the Stormers will be sweating a lot in their attempt to get that ‘DNA’ back ahead of a Loftus game where they face a team that poses several threats across the board.

And yet the Stormers won in front of 30 000 mostly passionate Sharks fans, which would have been good preparation for them for what they will face down at Loftus. The result in Durban also takes a bit of negative pressure off the Stormers in the sense that they’d have been in a real hole had they gone to Pretoria having lost at Kings Park as it would have left them well outside of the race for a top four spot.

“If we didn’t get a win today I think that would have been us in terms of hosting playoff games later in the competition. If we hadn’t got the four points we’d have been in trouble going to Pretoria.”

The Bulls do lead the Stormers by five on the overall log but as only derby games count to the SA Shield this season, it is the Stormers ahead in that secondary competition within a competition. It is the overall log though that matters most, and the win in Durban leaves the Stormers just two points off a top four spot.


Of course they’d like to finish ahead of the Bulls on the overall log, but it’s a top four spot that is most important as it secures home advantage in the first playoff game. And with the likes of Edinburgh, Ulster, Munster, Glasgow Warriors and Benetton all due to come to South Africa later in the competition, the Stormers should now fancy their chances of making the top four even if they don’t win against the Bulls.

With another break scheduled for after the Bulls game though, the Stormers can go for broke in Pretoria, and the fact they feel they have improvements to be made after winning in Durban, plus the fact they will be welcoming their Springboks back, is a reason for confidence. Indeed, Dobson has a few selection decisions to make that would be the envy of other coaches.

At loose-forward he has to fit Deon Fourie back into a unit that was impressive in Durban, plus he will know that Willie Engelbrecht is always a good performer when the Bulls are the opponents. And what does he do with Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu, who was outstanding at centre? Damian Willemse is one of the Boks coming back, but with Warrick Gelant arguably the Stormers’ best performer at fullback, it is hard to see how these three fine players are all going to be accommodated in the same team.

“Sacha is special, he is a one in a generation player, so it does provide a selection headache. Salmaan Moerat (the Stormers captain who made his return from a long injury layoff in the second half in Durban) is another headache, and although he only played 20 minutes it is hard to overlook Wandesile (Simelane).


Dobson admitted that he might be a bit short on props due to injury, but then he hinted that the Stormers could be bolstered by the return of World Cup winning Bok tighthead Frans Malherbe.

“I will have to talk to him, but Frans is available for the Bulls,” said Dobson.

That would be a timely return as while the Bulls struggled in the scrums in the initial stages of the Cape Town derby two days before Christmas, it was the Stormers who were on the back foot later in the game when the changes were made. There’s no question that the excellent Neethling Fouche has earned his stripes, but having both him and Malherbe, with the former possibly starting just because his layoff might make him a risk to play as a reserve, doing duty against the Bulls will boost an area where they’ve done surprisingly well post the departure of Steven Kitshoff.

The Stormers are set to test their depth in a friendly game against Windhoek Draught Griquas at the Transnet Saldanha Stadium on Wednesday afternoon (kick-off 5pm).