It would have been interesting to have some kind of device that could monitor DHL Stormers coach John Dobson’s real thoughts, both conscious and subconscious, when the unexpected happened and another home Vodacom United Rugby Championship final became a reality.
Did Munster’s win over Leinster perhaps register a slight recognition that there’d now be extra pressure in addition to the obvious opening for another URC title that the semifinal result in Dublin represented? It probably did.
Make no mistake, the Stormers would have gone to Dublin for a final against Leinster looking for a win, and would not have been going there just to make up the numbers. But there wouldn’t have been any expectation on them. They’d have started as underdogs in that game and would be the benefactors of that old cliche of being the team with everything to gain and little to lose.
Now there is expectation. There will be a minimum of 55 000 people in the DHL Stadium when the decider kicks off on Saturday evening, and most of those will be supporting the Stormers. Munster did win here in April, and that was obviously a good experience for them and should have been a confidence booster for this game, but there were only 29 000 in the ground that day.
Home ground advantage does put extra pressure on the hosts in a final, with the travelling team perhaps feeling it less being on the road and living in hotel rooms and being far away from the hype of their own rugby public.
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Who’s lifting THAT beautiful trophy? ??#BKTURC #URC | #UnitedWeRise | #STOvMUN pic.twitter.com/soOO8G97sw— BKT United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial) May 26, 2023
MUNSTER WILL BE DESPERATE
But while there is expectation around the Stormers, reading the mood from across the equator in the build-up to this game, there is also no shortage of expectation and therefore pressure being applied by the Irish media and Munster supporters from Limerick and Cork. Munster haven’t won a trophy since 2011, when they won what was then known as the Celtic league.
They’ve had opportunities since then when they’ve made the final, but they’ve mainly been shut out, certainly at PRO12 and PRO14 level, by the dominance Leinster have enjoyed over them. And of course Scarlets did it in the final that current South African national director of rugby Rassie Erasmus took Munster to.
The visiting coaching team admitted they didn’t expect to make the final this year, and for much of their season the fight was just about making sure they could make the playoff rounds and qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup. Now that they are there though the possibility of silverware to quench the long term frustration the passionate Munster supporters have suffered should have introduced a level of real hunger and desperation.
It came across in the media interviews this week, with former Stormers lock Jean Kleyn making it clear the win over Leinster would be meaningless if Munster didn’t follow up by taking the opportunity that the triumph at the Aviva Stadium presented to them.
“Leinster doesn't exist just to beat Leinster, it exists to win championships,” said Kleyn.
That being so, there’s heaps of pressure on Munster because of their long wait for success. The Stormers to some extent had their hunger sated and their frustration quenched last year, when they won the inaugural URC final against the Vodacom Bulls and effectively clinched their first international trophy.
PREVIOUS SUCCESS MAY MAKE HOSTS CALMER
The Stormers would certainly be under far more pressure had they lost last year’s final and still had the frontier of winning the trophy to cross. Will that make them slightly more relaxed and calm on Saturday? Time will tell.
What is certain is that the game will be as much a test of the nerve of the two teams as anything else, with the Stormers for instance knowing they need to be more clinical with their finishing, and Manie Libbok more accurate with his kicking, than was the case when Munster won 26-24 in mid-April.
Libbok has been sublime in the past two weeks, he needs to put in one more performance like what he produced in the quarterfinal against the Bulls and the semifinal against Connacht. If he does, the Stormers could be halfway there.
There were some key areas where the Stormers were let down last time, and perhaps the most glaring weakness was their defence of the Munster maul, while Kleyn and his fellow South African RG Snyman made the Stormers look very insecure at lineout time.
The Stormers would expect to have the advantage in the scrums, the condition of the field permitting. The Sharks gave Munster a torrid time both times they visited HollywoodBets Kings Park, and the set scrums was an area where Leinster were better than them in the semifinal too. In Munster’s recent visit to Cape Town, the Stormers scrum and their power game did appear to have Munster on the rack in the middle periods of the game but ran out of energy after not converting the period of dominance into points.
NO FATIGUE ELEMENT THIS TIME
Remember the Stormers had returned to Cape Town from Exeter that week, and not much more than a week before that they’d been in Dublin. If there wasn’t a fatigue element to their performance that day, then they’d be super human.
The field is a lot more level now. The Stormers haven’t traveled anywhere since the Sandy Park Champions Cup quarterfinal on the Easter weekend. They’re settled and refreshed, and barring something unexpected that might have happened in the buildup week, the team to be announced later on Friday should be very close to full strength.
The only curve ball we know the Stormers have had to deal with is the broken hand that has ruled out Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu from his role balancing up the backs on the bench. The sometimes unpredictable Clayton Blommetjies wasn’t in the Western Province team announced on Thursday for Friday night’s Currie Cup game against the Lions, so it can be assumed he will be joining Paul de Wet as the only backline reserves in a reversion to the six/two split between forwards and backs.
DIXON AT BLINDSIDE SHOULD BE A CONSIDERATION
The influential duo of Marvin Orie and Deon Fourie should return to the pack that started against Connacht, with Ben-Jason Dixon and Willie Engelbrecht reverting to the bench. It may though prove a mistake to drop Dixon out of the starting team altogether, for given the Munster forward strengths behind the front row, and the type of game they will be looking to play, the wise horses for courses approach this time might be to play him at blindside flank.
Yes, that means no place for the super-skilled Hacjivah Dayimani, who has been an important player for the Stormers, but the game could suit him more when it opens up later and he can perform the role of super-sub.
Dobson is unlikely to share this view though, so Dayimani will play, and given how so many of the Stormers games have gone over the past two years, we could well see his X-factor being a catalyst for an early Stormers try and the fast start that could set them up.
Certainly the Stormers will be looking for a similar intense and dominant start to the game as they managed in the quarterfinal against the Bulls, and will be trying to avoid the slow starts that they made against Munster and Connacht. They were particularly nervous early against Connacht and fell behind 8-0. They may not be able to afford that against Munster, although they do have the confidence of knowing they can come back - better finishing would have seen them close off the win after recovering from 12-0 down against Munster on their last visit and they did it comfortably in the end in the semifinal.
VISITING PACK HAS SOME FORMIDABLE PLAYERS
Munster will be out to control possession and from No 4 (Kleyn) through to Gavin Coombes at No 8 they have some formidable players. Their tactical kicking will also have to be pinpoint against a Stormers team that they know can be almost impossible to defend against when mistakes are made and the game becomes unstructured.
The Stormers will argue that there’s nothing too shabby about their pack either, and the early battle for physical ascendancy will be crucial. The Stormers did appear to have physical ascendancy in the middle stages of the league game and that should give them some reason for confidence.
Whatever happens the fact that it is a cross hemisphere final this year makes it a step up from the 2022 event, where the all South African clash was watched by only a half filled stadium because of Covid regulations. You’d imagine it would be hard to beat the intensity of the rivalry between the Bulls and Stormers, but there has been an edge to the build-up to this game ever since the video of the Stormers celebrating their home ground advantage in the final went viral.
Stormers hooker Joseph Dweba being picked up in that video using an expression you hear all the time in rugby behind closed doors, which he was at the time, but which so incensed some overseas people who clearly would have preferred to think Munster were coming to the Cape to visit a petting farm, raised the temperatures and contributed the “puff” (Kleyn’s word) that adds to the theatre of what should be an unforgettable occasion.
The quality and the excitement level in the previous clash between these teams was high and there were some who after that game said they’d make a great match-up in the playoff phase. That wish has come true, although it is doubtful those who felt that way would have expected the rematch to come in the decider.
I’m going with Rassie on how the match will go - the Stormers will have their work cut out to win, for Munster are a fine team and can turn the game into a dog-fight, but home ground advantage and the Dobson factor should give the Stormers the edge they need to make it two successive URC titles.
Vodacom United Rugby Championship final
DHL Stormers v Munster (DHL Stadium, Saturday 18.30)
Teams to be announced later on Friday.
Prediction: Stormers to win by 6