Bok return invigorates Stormers ahead of busy December

rugby29 November 2023 08:00
By:Gavin Rich
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Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse © Gallo Images

The DHL Stormers will be the busiest South African franchise during the month of December so it is probably just as well that the last days of November are seeing the Cape franchise being rejuvenated by the return of a plethora of returning Springboks and injured players.

The Stormers arrived back from an unsuccessful four match overseas Vodacom United Rugby Championship tour on Monday and have those players that toured have subsequently been reunited with four Springboks who were part of the World Cup winning in France, plus players like Sazi Sandi, Hacjivah Dayimani, JJ Kotze and Suleiman Hartzenberg, who didn’t tour for various reasons, as well as several such as Evan Roos, Ben-Jason Dixon and Joseph Dweba who were not available for the last game against Cardiff.

The man appointed as captain for the season, Salmaan Moerat, is of course still out for a few months, and the influential inside centre Dan du Plessis is expected back at the end of the month, while Gary Porter is out relatively long term, otherwise the Stormers are close to full muster when it comes to selection for Saturday’s seventh round URC game against Zebre in Stellenbosch.


We saw the impact their returning Boks made on the Hollywoodbets Sharks last weekend, with the Durban players agreeing that the impact was made as much in the training week as the match against the Dragons itself, and it promises to be the same for the Stormers on Saturday. Frans Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse are all training and all of them are expected to play some role in the next match.

“You can never underestimate the presence of the Springboks,” said stalwart lock Ruben van Heerden, who himself appears to be playing more and more of a leadership role in the Stormers setup.

“You can already see guys like Manie and Damian, Deon, just their presence in the team that brings a certain standard. If you don’t live up to that standard, they will call you out on it. That’s definitely something that we need. It’s amazing having those guys back.”

Coach John Dobson is getting the use of his Boks a week later than the other two South African sides that have World Cup winners in their ranks because they were still on tour last week and it wouldn’t have been a smart move to fly the Boks who’d spent so much time in France back to the northern hemisphere so soon after they’d return from their global triumph.


Dobson is going to have to box clever though with how he reintegrates the Boks because he faces one of those curve-balls that have become an anticipated consequence of the South African participation in both the URC and the Champions Cup. The Champions Cup kicks off the weekend after the Zebre game, with the Stormers starting out in England against Leicester Tigers on Sunday, 10 December. They then have just a six day turnaround before they go into a massive home fixture against the reigning champions, LaRochelle.

The Stormers are the one South African side that will be playing two games over the festive week, Christmas and New Year, this season, as while the other franchises agreed to reschedule some of their games, the Stormers have stuck with two plum home derbies against the Vodacom Bulls (23 December) and the Hollywoodbets Sharks (30 December).

While the line-up of games - LaRochelle, Bulls and Sharks - in the space of a fortnight is great for Cape rugby fans as well as visitors to the city who want to watch what could be some very entertaining rugby, it does mean it is crunch time for the Stormers, who can’t afford to lose again in the URC, and those two derbies are also crucial to their opponents, so it is going to be a pretty intense Christmas for them.

With such a short turnaround between the two Champions Cup fixtures, Dobson is in a difficult position when it comes to selection.

“I can’t expect players to arrive back on Tuesday from a game against Leicester and then play a huge game against the champions on Saturday. That would be repeating the situation we experienced last year, when we arrived back from the Champions Cup quarterfinal against Exeter Chiefs and our next opponents, Munster, were here before us,” said Dobson.

“So while I am not saying we won’t be going all out against Leicester, you probably won’t see us playing too many players who we consider frontliners for the LaRochelle game.”


It could have an impact then on how much game time he gives his Boks against Zebre, as if they are not travelling to England with the team for the first Champions Cup game, the Stellenbosch match will be their only rugby since the World Cup before they front against LaRochelle on 16 December.

“We have to be slightly careful with how we give them game time. They have been off after the World Cup, relaxing fairly hard for a while,” Dobson said.

“It’s more about perhaps not pushing Manie for 80 minutes, but deciding between giving him 20 minutes off the bench or we could start with him, controlling his minutes and sub him. I think they do need to get some rust off, maybe not all of them. Certainly, Manie and Damian need to shake some rust off. We just need to manage it.

“I don’t think they can go from zero to 80, but I’m not going to keep them in cotton wool and throw them into an away game against Leicester or the game against La Rochelle. That wouldn’t be fair. They need a bit of a run at home.”


Dobson said he welcomed the leadership that the returning Boks would bring to a playing group that was lacking in experience by the time the attrition rate took its toll on the squad at the end of the tour.

“Although Neethling (Fouche) did really well as the captain, that’s probably where we have struggled the most as a collective. Having game-drivers like Manie or a real warrior who can lead by example like Deon, he is huge from a leadership point of view,” Dobson said.

“Deon has been through one of the craziest six weeks. He won a World Cup, his father passed away, he has just come back from the funeral. We offered him more time away, but he wants to play rugby. Just seeing him out there in the field, knowing who he is and what he’s done, has given us a massive bit of confidence.”

The smart money should be on Fourie captaining the Stormers in Stellenbosch. The team for the Zebre clash will be announced on Friday.