When you are champions in a competition and the next season you don’t hold onto the trophy, that would normally be seen as a step backwards, but if you do the analysis it is easy to agree with coach John Dobson’s view that it hasn’t been the case this year with the DHL Stormers.
On the contrary, although the Stormers relinquished the Vodacom United Rugby Championship trophy they won last year by losing the final 19-14 to Munster, that the Cape side were able to go to the decider again in a year where for the first time they were balancing up the URC with Heineken Champions Cup is confirmation that they are here to stay as a major rugby force.
“This has been a better season for us than last year, last season we were red lining a bit and hanging in whereas this time around it felt we were doing really well at some points,” said the Stormers coach.
Dobson started the season with a strong focus on growing depth, and getting to another final, particularly another home final, wasn’t really something that was envisaged at the start of a season where the Stormers wanted to be competitive to prove last year’s success was no flash in the pan.
“We really, really wanted to win this trophy again, but we also have to be disciplined and look at the bigger picture,” said Dobson after his team’s harrowing loss, which came about through Munster seizing on a Manie Libbok error to score the winning try with just four minutes left on the clock.
“We did something special. At halftime I told the guys we had some fault correction to do, and they got that right. I feel gutted, but at the start of the season we did not write down ‘retain our URC title’ as a goal. We wrote down 'increase our depth and prove that we belong at the top table of the URC and European rugby'.
“And, increase the sense of belonging of everyone in the group, from the ground staff to everyone, even the non-playing squad. And to make Cape Town smile. Unfortunately the loss in the final means it ends on a down note, and while we will have a drink together and celebrate what we have achieved this season, we will cry into our pillows later and it does feel weird.”
LOSING MAY MAKE THEM STRONGER
In time Dobson may look back at the experience of this past weekend as an important learning experience and reality check for his team and perhaps, if they play their cards right, a catalyst for future success. They’ve experienced what it is like to win the URC trophy, now they’ve got to feel what it is like to lose a final. And perhaps that will make them better and stronger, and the loss also brings some perspective in the sense that there is still a lot of growing to do. Had the Stormers won a second successive title, they might have inherited a Galactica status they are not quite at just yet. If anything, the Stormers were better in earlier parts of the season than they were right at the end, although that may have been because of the cumulative effect of playing so much on a field that is heavy underfoot, was muddy and slippery for the final and certainly didn’t help them in the sense that it turned the final into a northern hemisphere game.
While the Stormers were making an emotional farewell to their captain Steven Kitshoff, who is off to Ulster, and their passionate fans in the URC final, one thing they won’t be sorry about is that it was the last game they will play on that playing surface. The field is to be replaced during the off-season by a hybrid pitch (50 per cent grass and 50 per cent synthetic).
EQUITY DEAL CRUCIAL TO THE NEXT STEP
Their appearance in a second successive final suggests the Stormers will be a major force going forward in the URC, but taking the next step of also going further in the Heineken Champions Cup than the quarterfinal they managed this year is going to require deeper pockets than the Stormers currently have.
For Dobson acknowledges that while he’s been successful in improving the squad’s depth, and the ongoing Carling Currie Cup, where the Stormers have steered away from uploading the Western Province team with URC players like other franchises did, continues to do that, he may need to bring in some “sharp end” players in order to take the next step.
Ironically, Munster probably wouldn’t have won the competition had they gone as far as the HCC quarterfinal. It was that week they got off to give them a wide gap between their round of 16 HCC exit to the Sharks and their URC league game against the Stormers in Cape Town that enabled them to regroup and refresh for their gruelling finish to the season.
In the same vein, Dobson believes that had his team won their HCC quarterfinal against Exeter Chiefs, his men would not have been in the URC final. Indeed, he said during the earlier phase of playoffs that had they gone to LaRochelle for a semifinal, his men would not have come through against the Bulls in the quarterfinal as they’d have had to field a Currie Cup team.
Actually, the WP Currie Cup team beat a URC loaded Bulls side twice in the domestic season to underline what Dobson means when he talks about successful growth of depth, but we know what he means. It is going to require an even wider squad to compete on two fronts and try to be successful at both, as perhaps the Sharks found out this year when they missed out on playing Champions Cup next season because they didn’t focus enough on the primary competition.
“We're a little bit off being able to challenge to go all the way in the Champions Cup at this point,” Dobson said.
“If we had to go to La Rochelle for a semifinal and come back for a URC semifinal, we wouldn't be here today. There sounds like there are going to be adjustments to the salary cap (the franchise salary caps are expected to be upped by 25 per cent to R85-million), but we do need bigger squads because our depth at the moment and the youngsters we have won't solve the Heineken Cup problem.
“We need to get ourselves to a situation where, hypothetically, if we have a big European Cup game away where we have our main front row playing, we want another front row of almost equal ability staying at home to prep for the next URC game. If we go to Exeter, we'll need to have a team good enough here at home to beat Munster, but it may come over the next year when we do an equity deal.
“Our pathways here are brilliant, and we are getting that right and tapping into the enormous reservoir of talent we have in this region, but we need a few more guys to compete and that's where the investment comes in,” he added.
It is understood that negotiations with an equity partner, believed to be a consortium, are well advanced and the deal is expected to be announced in the next month or so. Given how the Stormers have flown while their mother union, WP, has been under administration, the thought of them having money to sign up the many top players who have looked at Cape Town and the franchise that plays out of that city as an alluring destination should at least partially salve the wounds of the URC final defeat.