The defeat to Vodacom United Rugby Championship champions Munster in Limerick at the weekend ended any hope of the DHL Stormers returning from their four match tour with the 50 per cent success rate that was the minimum aim, but coach John Dobson is far from despondent.
The Stormers play Cardiff Rugby in Cardiff on Friday night in their last tour match and Dobson makes no bones about the fact that they will be going out to get a full house of five log points in an attempt to minimise the damage of three consecutive tour defeats.
The Stormers lost at Arms Park in 2022, so he will be mindful of the need to win first, but he left little doubt that was the aim when he spoke to the media after his team’s 10-3 defeat at Limerick Park.
“The Cardiff game has become an incredibly important one for us and while I hate that term ‘must win’ as you go out to win every game you play, it is crucial for us to get the win,” said Dobson.
“If we pick up five points against Cardiff it will leave us with seven points from the tour. That is just one point less than two wins, which would be four points each, and while it would be less than what we would have liked, it will still leave us in a good position as we head back to South Africa.”
In saying that, Dobson is clearly mindful of the amount of jeopardy that there has been in the competition this year, something that has made three consecutive defeats less damaging to the Stormers than it might otherwise have been.
There is no unbeaten team left in the competition now that Glasgow Warriors have beaten Benetton, and it has meant the teams in the top 10 (the Stormers are currently ninth) are all still fairly close together on the log.
The leaders, Leinster and Glasgow Warriors, are eight points clear of the 2021/22 champion team and last year’s beaten finalists, but one game can change that significantly, as the Vodacom Bulls discovered when they lost to Edinburgh.
The Bulls were considered high flying a week ago and now they are just three points ahead, the point being not that the Stormers should be worrying about the Bulls but that it showed how quickly things can be changed by one game when the Bulls dropped from first to seventh.
CHRISTMAS DERBIES WILL BE CRUCIAL
If the Stormers do pick up five points in Cardiff, and one of the two frontrunners loses, the difference will be just three or four points again - and like the Bulls, the Stormers have a run of home games now to look forward to.
Indeed, as it stands, the Christmas derbies against first the Bulls (23 December) and then the Hollywoodbets Sharks (30 December) could prove season-defining for the Stormers if they win the two games they play before that.
Their first post-tour home game will be against Zebre on 2 December and then they switch to the Champions Cup in the gap between then and the Bulls game.
The Stormers will not want to be too far behind the Bulls when they play in Cape Town two days before Christmas as although the overall log positions aren’t relevant to the Shield anymore, as that is now decided only on the derby games, they are relevant to the Stormers’ chances of making it into the top four and securing another home playoff.
The three games they have lost in the opening five rounds is just one less than they lost in the whole of last season.
However, there were two draws on the Stormers’ record in 2022/23, and the same the year before.
The Stormers eschewed the opportunity to draw against Benetton by not kicking for posts with a late kickable opportunity, and Dobson argued correctly afterwards that it was just one point they were giving up as against the extra four they would have got by clinching a win with a bonus point try.
But it was also really just one point the Stormers lost out on against Munster as a draw was always more likely than a win during most of the second half when the Stormers had the physical ascendancy.
Those one points do add up and if the Stormers come agonisingly short at the end of their campaign of securing home ground advantage in the first playoff game they may rue the two that got away.
DAYIMANI BEING MISSED
For now though Dobson’s biggest problem was one he volunteered to his audience after Munster - there have been two games on this tour where the Stormers have not crossed their opponents line.
The obvious answer to why that is that it might come down to the fact they don’t have the X-factor of Manie Libbok, who is still being rested after his Springbok heroics, and the less obvious one might focus on Hacjivah Dayimani.
The flanker has not gone on tour because it coincided with his partner giving birth and it may be that the tour is showing that he might be a more valuable member of the team than thought because he does bring a different dynamic on attack that is arguably lacking right now.
Dobson probably made a mistake by playing Dayimani ahead of Ben-Jason Dixon on a heavy field in last year’s URC final, but he is often the point of difference on dry surfaces and the coach should be looking forward to having Dayimani, who has a freaky ability to make something out of nothing and provides seamless linking between forwards and backs, back in the mix when his team gets back to the firm surfaces of a hot Cape Town summer.
It remains to be seen whether Dayimani will be joining the team for this last week but with a lot of rain in the northern hemisphere at the moment it is in the games on South African soil that Dayimani’s skill and explosiveness will be most valuable to the Stormers.