The Stormers were possibly the last SA team anyone would have picked to start 2022 unbeaten in three United Rugby Championship (URC) games since January’s restart.
Yet here they are, having beaten the Bulls at their prized Loftus Versfeld and drawn with the talent-flush Sharks in Durban before turning them over in Cape Town last weekend.
Their previous two matches hung on a cliff and could have gone either way, especially at Kings Park, where they benefitted from the Sharks’ lax closing out of the game to steal a draw at the buzzer.
But on Saturday, they were in control, mostly tidy in the scrums, stingy defensively, neat in ball-retention structure, and produced an 80-minute performance not seen since Super Rugby, before Covid changed our worlds upside down.
The Stormers went to Durban a fortnight ago with exactly 23 playing men because of budgetary constraints, which have also limited their backroom staff traveling entourage.
Murphy’s Law, of course, dictated that they lose Rikus Pretorius to a freak gash to his leg in the warm-up, reducing the visitors to just 22 players.
They were completely outplayed but stayed in the fight ’till the death, much like at Loftus, where they started brightly, ceded momentum, only to stun the Bulls with Paul de Wet’s winner.
It’s a credit to head coach John Dobson that a team that lost so many stars in 2021 – a nucleus of Rugby World Cup 2019 winners, Siya Kolisi, Bongi Mbonambi, and Pieter-Steph du Toit – and suffered injuries to Frans Malherbe, Salmaan Moerat, Evan Roos and Neethling Fouche hasn’t completely capitulated.
The threat of losing players has also not abated, as the franchise waits agonizingly for star fullback Warrick Gelant, whose contract runs out in June, to decide on his future.
French club Racing 92 has reportedly coveted the 26-year-old Springbok World Cup-winning fullback’s signature.
“One of the real downsides of this tournament is that we’ve become a shop window for players,” said Dobson, who has rotated Gelant and Damian Willemse in the No 15 jersey.
“We’ve read about massive offers for Warrick. I don’t think there are any issues regarding Warrick on our side. If he goes, it would be purely financial … it’s not going to be about game time or opportunity.
“Damian is already on 200 minutes and Warrick will play another 80 minutes next week.
“The Cheetahs lost 13 players in their first year of PRO14. Every day there are offers for our players. Don’t be surprised if Dan du Plessis might get an offer. It’s just how it is in the tough world we live in.
“When you look back to one of the last Super Rugby games of 2019 that we played the Lions at Ellis Park, out of that 23, 16 players have left the union.
“We tried to do a rebuild, without falling off a cliff which has happened to some teams in the past. I don’t want to rest on my laurels, but I think we have done a reasonable job,” added Dobson.
5 talking points | United Rugby Championship – Round 9, SA leg
In a strange way, the Stormers have so far been the most consistent South African team in the inaugural URC.
They got a win (Dragons) and a draw (Edinburgh) on the four-match Euro leg and they’ve added two wins and another draw since the turn of the year. The 37-19 loss to the Lions in December is the only blight on their SA leg.
This despite losing to Benetton and Munster in their opening two games.
Dobson fingered their defence as the crucial ingredient that’s gone under the radar somewhat during the competition.
The Stormers have let in 161 points to the Sharks’ 208, the Bulls’ 184 and the Lions’ 222.
“By some stretch, we’ve conceded the least points in our conference, and we must be happy to concede only 10 points against that Sharks team,” said Dobson.
“That is one of our frustrations from the coaching side. Our defence is so good but we sometimes give away soft penalties like offside or a tackler not rolling.
“At Loftus and last week, we didn’t look like we’d been opened up much. And the Sharks have a world-class player in Lukhanyo Am, who can split any defence and he and Mapimps (Makazole Mapimpi) make an incredible combination.
“If we just trust our defense, we’re going to be even better. When we stay patient, they end up kicking the ball back to us.”