There was no attempt on the part of either the DHL Stormers captain or coach to play down the importance and significance of Saturday’s Vodacom United Rugby Championship final. Both skipper Steven Kitshoff and coach John Dobson were unanimous that this is the franchise’s biggest game ever.
“Last year was huge for us and of course it was a very important game but we were playing the Bulls so it felt in some ways that it was a South African derby and the final of a local competition and the continuation of a rivalry that has been an annual event every year for the last 80 years,” said Dobson.
“This time we are representing South Africa against one of the giants of Europe. Munster are steeped in history, they are one of the world’s biggest teams. There are going to be 55 000 people in DHL Stadium, there is so much expectation around this game.
“If you look at the big games in Stormers history, the only time we reached the final in Super Rugby was the one in Soweto in 2010, but that one was also against the Bulls. The Men and Black, and I am not being disparaging about this, did not make the final in 1999. They lost the semifinal to Highlanders. So I have no doubt that this one is the biggest.”
Kitshoff has been part of the Stormers for more than a decade and said he couldn’t remember a bigger game.
“I’ve been playing for the Stormers since 2011 and I can’t remember a bigger game for us in that time, it is definitely one of the biggest,” said Kitshoff.
“There has been such a focus on rugby in this city over the past week, every time you turn on the radio it feels like this game is being talked about, the wives of the players were on the radio yesterday. So there is a lot of expectation and also a lot of expectation. I can’t talk on behalf of Munster, but this is an opportunity for them and I am sure it is very big for them too.
“So I wouldn’t really be able to say who is under the greater pressure going into the game. I’d say it is about 50/50.”
Tale of the Tape ??
Here’s how @TheStormers and @MunsterRugby match up ????@Vodacom #URC | #UnitedWeRise #STOvMUN pic.twitter.com/3v5o2qD4N2— Vodacom United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial_RSA) May 26, 2023
LAST YEAR'S EXPERIENCE HELPED
Asked if there’d been any additional input from a psychologist to help the Stormers deal with the pressure, Kitshoff, who is playing his final game for the Stormers in the final before heading to Ulster next season, the Springbok prop said that the experience of winning the decider last year had made it unnecessary.
“The guys understand the occasion and what is needed. I think of the 23 players doing duty for us in this game, 80 per cent of them were part of it last year. There was also big pressure on us in the games against the Bulls and Connacht that got us to the final and we handled it so I don’t think this will be any different for us than that and the guys are ready for it.”
Dobson believes that having broken through a barrier last year by being the first Stormers team to win an international competition, there is less pressure on his team than there would have been had the Bulls won last year and not the Cape team. However, that did not mean there is less pressure on the team to succeed.
“I would say it is a more positive kind of pressure, but it is still pressure, because we know how the Cape rugby public has been caught up in this game, and what it means for the Cape people,” said the Stormers coach.
“There has been such interest in this game, and I can tell you from what I have been told, we could have sold this game out five times over. So that brings pressure. Knowing what it means to your supporters. I am really scared of letting all these people down.
“But the pressure going into a final is different. Had we lost to the Bulls in the quarterfinal it would have been a disaster. I have lost in quarterfinals of competitions before and there is nothing worse. After losing at that stage you don’t want to watch the rest of the competition, you don’t want to watch the final.
“It’s kind of a difficult one for me (the pressure question). I keep telling myself that regardless of the result of the final, we’ve met our goals for the season and exceeded our expectations. Our goal wasn’t to retain the trophy. But now that we are here we are desperate to win the trophy because it feeds our mission of connecting the Stormers brand to the community.
“We were keen to go to Leinster if that had been what we’d needed to do. We were keen to test ourselves against their full strength team and we had plans around that game. It would have provided a good measurement of the growth of this group. But the explosion of interest in a home final has just been astounding. Everyone is wearing Stormers jerseys, the whole city has embraced us and this event, a bit more so than last time.”
Introducing your Grand Finalists... ??
Who’s lifting THAT beautiful trophy? ??@Vodacom #URC | #UnitedWeRise | #STOvMUN pic.twitter.com/WDnmheutwT— Vodacom United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial_RSA) May 26, 2023
Dobson believes his team is in the right space to go out and retain the trophy they won last year by beating Munster on Saturday.
“We are in the space we want to be. If we’d had just a week between the semifinal and the final we might have been in trouble, but we had a week to reboot and now this has been a normal week, with no distractions. The plans for the game are good.”