MISFITS TO MASTERS
Stormers’ statement win over Bulls underlines their status as a tournament giant
The prize for the Stormers after winning their URC quarterfinal against the Bulls, rather unexpectedly, is a home semifinal against Connacht.
Stormers 33 (17) Bulls 21 (7)
They haven’t always been at their best throughout the 2022/23 United Rugby Championship (URC) campaign, but on Saturday the Stormers made a strong statement. They are comfortably South Africa’s best team in the competition. And when they click, they may be the best team in the tournament.
The Stormers’ 33–21 URC quarterfinal dismantling of the Bulls was a much more comprehensive performance than the score suggested. The Bulls deserve some credit for keeping the final score respectable despite being on the back foot for almost the entire game. But for the most part there was only one team in it.
The Bulls made some superb last-gasp tackles and scrapped with guts despite being outplayed. They scored a late try to narrow the deficit, but it mattered little.
Bulls coach Jake White said the Stormers deserved to win and were the better team, which was a fair assessment. It was unusually magnanimous. But he then chastised the officials for mistakes, souring the moment of generosity to a clearly superior opponent on the day.
“We’ve got to be a bit humble. The Stormers played really well tonight. They are not champions of the URC for nothing,” White said.
“They can hold you in the first phase. They put you under pressure when you try to play from lineouts. They have an incredible defence system, and then, as soon as you turn the ball over, they can punish you.
“That seems to be the winning recipe for the way you win this competition,” White said.
“A lot of work goes into preparing video clips of things. The answers are that it won’t be allowed … then you see the same pictures in [today’s] game and it is allowed.
“So, I think one thing we’re going to have to work out is how can we, through the URC, find a way to get [decisions right]. I’ve heard there’s zero tolerance on hands past the ball on the ground, but it didn’t look like that tonight.
“I heard that if you sack a maul, and it’s a tackle, then you can’t lie on top of the ball. But that didn’t happen tonight either.”
Any cold analysis of the match will show the Stormers dominated the breakdowns, the lineout, territory and possession. An unemotional, calculated look at the game will highlight how the Bulls struggled to cope with the Stormers’ accurate and varied tactical kicking game – especially in the first half.
Embrose Papier and Kurt-Lee Arendse made last-gasp tackles in their in-goal areas on Joseph Dweba and Damian Willemse to stop two more tries being scored. This was not a result that came down to bad calls by the officials. Arendse actually tackled Willemse in the air to stop that score. There was a case for a penalty try for the Stormers.
The reality is that that game was never tight enough for the officials to decide the outcome. The Stormers were dominant. This was a statement win.
The Bulls were never in the game, being forced deep into their 22-metre area almost from the kick-off. How they managed to keep the score to 17–7 at halftime was a sign of their tenaciousness, but not of the state of the match.
The Stormers left a few scoring chances on the patchy DHL Stadium turf, but in truth they were never under pressure.
The prize for the Stormers, rather unexpectedly, is a home semifinal against Connacht. The Galway club overcame Belfast rivals Ulster 15–10, away from home. Connacht have to travel to Cape Town and it would be a monumental effort if they overturned the Stormers at home.
“They [Connacht] have dog and mongrel in them. There is something there that is really worrying. The way they fight and their attack shape is really good,” Stormers coach John Dobson said after the match.
“The way they took Ulster apart at the breakdown last night was impressive. Connacht is a great story from the windy grey track in the far west with the smallest budget; to do what they are doing is impressive.
“They don’t go away, and I think Ulster saw that on Friday night. They’re going to be a much tougher opposition than what we think.
“But for us to be here again next weekend is great, I’m sure, from a revenue perspective, but our whole mission is to make Cape Town smile.
“To lay on an occasion like we did today is really special. People wouldn’t have thought that was possible anymore going back to Covid-19 and even the dwindling Super Rugby crowds before that.
“To have this new culture and engagement with people in Cape Town is incredible. I can’t tell you how much it means to us.”
Dobson takes high ground
The Stormers have now won six out of six URC games against the Bulls. Dobson has built a team of “misfits”, into one of the best club rugby sides in the world.
Besides skipper Steven Kitshoff, tighthead prop Frans Malherbe and utility back Willemse, they have very few players that would be picked as Springbok starters.
But they are greater than the sum of their parts. Flyhalf Manie Libbok produced a scintillating performance of attacking thrust, defensive steel and flawless goal-kicking. He landed seven from seven from the tee.
Inside centre Daniel du Plessis was magnificent again, as was No 8 Evan Roos. Everyone performed at an exceptionally high level.
Dobson though preferred not to focus on his personal battle with White, rather praising his assistant coaches and the players for the excellent record against the Bulls.
“The Bulls came out of lockdown, or during lockdown, and beat us six or seven times in a row. It was tough,” Dobson reminded reporters.
“He [Jake White] is a guy that’s won a World Cup. He’s one of the best coaches in the world, probably. He’s coached all over the world. I’m never going to win a World Cup and I’m never going to coach all over the world.
“It’s a collective effort over here. We’re a coaching collective. Dawie [Snyman], Norman [Laker] and Rito [Hlungwani] are doing extraordinary jobs. For us to get a lineout percentage of 90-something percent today against a team like the Bulls is well done to Rito.
“Norman Laker is one of the best defence coaches around … We really are a collective.” DM
Stormers – Tries: Hacjivah Dayimani, Leolin Zas, Angelo Davids. Conversions: Manie Libbok (3). Penalties: Libbok (4)
Bulls – Tries: Cyle Brink, Embrose Papier, Bismarck du Plessis. Conversions: Johan Goosen, Chris Smith (2)