Stormers continue to defy odds as URC heavyweights despite uncertain future

Stormers continue to defy odds as URC heavyweights despite uncertain future
Dan du Plessis of Stormers makes a break during the United Rugby Championship match between Cardiff Rugby and DHL Stormers at Cardiff Arms Park on 22 October, 2022 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency/Gallo Images)

The Stormers continue to defy the odds by pushing for a second successive United Rugby Championship title, which is made all the more remarkable because of continuing uncertainty off the field.

The Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU) remains under SA Rugby’s administration, the sale of Newlands is still delayed and a search for a private equity partner continues. Yet, despite these severe challenges, the Stormers continue to thrive on the field.

The United Rugby Championship (URC) holders are currently second on the standings after 14 rounds and are on track to secure a home play-off run after recording a 23-19 win over the Bulls at Loftus at the weekend. It was the Stormers’ fifth successive victory over the well-heeled Bulls.

The Stormers need just two log points from their final four matches to confirm one of the top eight places. They have lost just three of 14 matches this season and done it while blooding a host of young players.

Coach John Dobson obviously deserves recognition for producing a team that continues to set high standards in terms of results, but also produces eye-catching rugby.

Stormers head coach John Dobson

Stormers head coach John Dobson has built a successful team alongside his assistants. (Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/Gallo Images)

It’s not a solo endeavour of course. Assistants such as forwards coach Rito Hlungwani, defensive strategist Norman Laker, backline and attack coach Dawie Snyman, skills coach and performance analyst Labeeb Levy and kicking coach Gareth Wright to several other consultants and medical staff, all play their part.

One of the unsung linchpins in the Stormers eco-system is Rugby Operations Manager Greg Hechter, who heads up recruitment. He has a great eye for talent and makes sure Dobson and the other coaches are able to rely on a rich talent supply line, in lieu of a big budget to sign established stars.

Greg Hechter

Greg Hechter, Stormers Rugby Operations Manager, has been crucial to their successful recruitment process. (Photo: Carl Fourie/Gallo Images)

In the past season-and-a-half, Dobson has given 29 debuts without compromising on consistency and performance. It speaks to a very healthy team culture.

The Stormers are still not as wealthy as the Bulls and Sharks, who have private equity money to take care of all their needs, and they have fewer big names on the roster. And it doesn’t matter because they have created an environment of excellence, free of administrative meddling.

Clarity of command

The success of the Stormers is a team effort from all those coaches at the High Performance Centre in Bellville. Dobson has been able to steer the ship with confidence because SA Rugby appointed administrator Rian Oberholzer has provided a clear command chain.

Rian Oberholzer

Rian Oberholzer has been instrumental in providing a more streamlined process as WPRFU administrator. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

Dobson doesn’t have to answer to a committee, or to a president, a vice-president, a CEO and a director of rugby, as was the case prior to the union being placed in administration in September 2021.

One incident underlined how muddied the system was before Oberholzer’s arrival. In his first week on the job, Oberholzer received an email from Dobson with his team sheet for the weekend. The coach expected Oberholzer, as the de facto CEO/President and Board, to sign off on the team selection.

Naturally, Oberholzer was puzzled. He immediately called Dobson and said that team selection was up to him as coach and that Oberholzer, as administrator, had no need to ‘sign off’ on team selection.

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Oberholzer told Dobson to concentrate on coaching, selecting and winning. He informed Dobson that he only had one boss — Oberholzer himself — and that team matters were not the administrator’s role.

“You have a budget; use it to recruit players, coach and deliver, I’ll take care of the rest,” was how Oberholzer phrased it. The clarity and the weight off Dobson’s shoulders so he could focus on the “main thing”, as Rassie Erasmus famously put it for the Boks, was liberating.

And the results show how effective it was. Dobson is the same coach and person he was when he and the team were struggling as the WPRFU descended into boardroom meltdown that led to their near collapse 18 months ago.

Since the streamlining of the process, the team has morphed into serial winners.

They have won 20 games in a row at the DHL Stadium, they won the inaugural URC in 2022 and remain on course to defend that title and they are into the knockouts of the European Champions Cup at the first time of asking.

Only the most blinkered, agenda-driven observers would contest that the upward curve of the team is linked to the eviction of the lousy leadership.

Challenges remain

Oberholzer’s mandate had four major pillars, and they were all essentially centred on stabilising the finances of the union.

That was and is to be done through overseeing the sale of Newlands Stadium, which is vital for the survival of the union, finding an equity partner for the Stormers (the professional arm of the union) and going through all commercial contracts.

Until former Springbok captain and architect Wynand Claassen launched an application to have Newlands declared a heritage site, the sale of Newlands had attracted several interested parties through a sealed bidding process.

That heritage application, though, stalled the vital sale of Newlands’ development rights as potential buyers hit pause, waiting for the outcome of the claim.

It appears the heritage claim will fail after an authoritative report found that Newlands does not qualify as a heritage site by any objective measure. The Western Cape government’s heritage committee only has to rubber-stamp the process now.

If and when the claim is formally rejected, there is a buyer ready to sign. 

The sealed bidding process, which was independently run, will take the best candidate back to the General Council and in a perfect world, that should be that.

Newlands should be sold for a price of around R400-million. If done, the WPRFU’s debts of more than R200-million could be cleared and it will have a healthy pot of cash reserves.

Ernst van Rhyn

Ernst van Rhyn of Stormers is tackled by James Botham of Cardiff during the United Rugby Championship match between Cardiff Rugby and DHL Stormers at Cardiff Arms Park on 22 October, 2022 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency/Gallo Images)

But that process is not as straightforward as it might seem, because the final decision on who Newlands is sold to, will fall to the WPRFU’s General Council, the body made up of its 102 member clubs.

That organ has been locked in months of squabbling over preferred developers for Newlands and when the time comes to vote in favour of the sale, it could still derail the process.

In terms of a private equity partner, Oberholzer made it clear when he addressed the media recently that the situation with the sale of Newlands and financial concerns for the WPRFU will not scupper an equity sale.

The Stormers, while falling under the WPRFU’s umbrella, are a stand-alone organisation. An equity partner is buying into the Stormers team and brand, and not into the WPRFU.

Daily Maverick understands that a partner has been finalised and that the details of the deal will go back to SA Rugby’s financial committee (whom Oberholzer answers to) for final ratification by the end of March.

An equity partner, providing much-needed cash flow for the professional team is vital in the long run, but in the short term, Dobson and his side continue to find a way against incredible odds. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    The true heritage is the exciting, traditional style of “PROVINCE” rugby that the Stormers have adopted. Franchise rugby cannot succeed under the cumbersome, historical administration structures of amateur rugby. I don’t forego any opportunity to watch the Stormers. They are great

  • Paddy Ross says:

    The Stormers tend to have a good half and dozey half in almost every game but continue to win despite this tendency and they play rugby in an exciting attractive way. Well done Dobbo and all the players that have stayed with the Stormers.

  • Johann Olivier says:

    Has there ever been a clearer example of the ability of bad management to stuff things up? Any lessons in this, ANC?

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