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Stormers continue to fly the SA flag in spite of their continuing administration and carping from rivals

Stormers continue to fly the SA flag in spite of their continuing administration and carping from rivals
Steven Kitshoff of Stormers during their United Rugby Championship match against Munster at Cape Town Stadium on 15 April 2023. (Photo: Carl Fourie / Gallo Images)

The Stormers’ success in the face of massive off-field obstacles hasn’t gone down well with rival South African franchises.

The Stormers are embracing the pressure of being favourites for Saturday’s United Rugby Championship (URC) semifinal against surprise Irish package Connacht.

There is no point in denying that anything other than a Stormers victory would be a big upset. They are the defending URC champions and they have lost only one home game in their past 23 outings in the Mother City.

But it’s more than that. For the Stormers players and coaching staff, the pressure of the favourites tag is a privilege because they have been through much, much more. There was a stage, 20 months ago, when salaries weren’t being paid on time and it was not guaranteed that there would be a Stormers for much longer.

As the Western Province Rugby Football Union’s (WPRFU) miscreant administrators bumbled from one crisis to the next, bringing the organisation to the brink of financial collapse had the SA Rugby Union (Saru) not stepped in, the Stormers somehow endured on the field.

Once the union was placed under administration and coach John Dobson only reported to one person – in this case administrator Rian Oberholzer – did results improve.

The Stormers still didn’t have much. They had no money to spare, everything was cut to bare bones. Teams normally travel to an away game with a third hooker, fifth prop and third scrumhalf just in case one of the 23 goes down in the captain’s run or warm-up. The Stormers couldn’t afford to do that.

Misfits

Dobson had to assemble a bunch of “misfits” as he called them, and they have become greater than the sum of their parts, winning the inaugural URC in 2022. They are now hosting a home semifinal again, even as they remain in administration.

Flyhalf Manie Libbok was in danger of becoming a journeyman at the age of 24 after unsuccessful stints at the Bulls and Sharks. Dobson brought him to Cape Town in mid-2021 and he’s now a Springbok and set to go to Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.

Evan Roos of the Stormers breaking the line during a United Rugby Championship match against Benetton at Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch on 21 April 2023. (Photo: EJ Langner / Gallo Images)

Flank Deon Fourie was considering retirement after a good spell in France. Dobson lured him back to the union where he made his name and after a brilliant 2022 URC, Fourie became the oldest Springbok debutant at the age of 35 against Wales in Bloemfontein.

Veteran prop Brok Harris was also offered a late-career lifeline after eight years and 143 games for the Dragons in Wales. And at the other end of the spectrum, the likes of Ben-Jason Dixon, Gary Porter and Suleiman Hartzenberg are classy youngsters who were recruited or retained after school in these austere times.

It’s no surprise then that captain Steven Kitshoff accepted his team were favourites for Saturday’s semifinal. They’re proud of the tag and wear it unapologetically.

“When we saw Connacht beating Ulster last week, we knew that if we beat the Bulls, we would get a home semifinal,” Kitshoff said.

“It does build a bit of pressure because the public expects us to win, but that’s okay.

“Connacht are a physical side, they’re threatening at the breakdown and they have a good pack of forwards that operate well. After we reviewed their game against Ulster on Monday, we saw a lot of threats. So, there is pressure on us because they are not expected to win… all the pressure is on us.”

Sibling rivalry

The Stormers’ success in the face of these massive obstacles hasn’t gone down well with rival South African franchises though.

At last week’s Saru annual general meeting, it was reported that the Bulls and the Sharks want R23-million each in broadcast rights disbursements paid to them.

The Stormers’ Clayton Blommetjies on the ball against Benetton at Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch on 21 April 2023. (Photo: EJ Langner / Gallo Images)

The reason, according to sources who spoke to Rapport, is that Saru have essentially been plugging the Stormers’ shortfall in income to keep them afloat.

The R23-million is for reductions in disbursement funding in 2021 and 2022, which was part of Covid-related cost-cutting. The entire rugby ecosystem, including staff at Saru, players and employees at all provincial unions, took between 25% and 40% in wage cuts to ride out the pandemic.

Everyone was in pain due to Covid but no one lost a job.

Although those salary reductions are supposedly “deferred” to a time when the sport is awash with money, most people in the industry accept that it will never be repaid.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Stormers’ statement win over Bulls underlines their status as a tournament giant

Those cuts were agreed at Saru council level, which includes representatives of the Bulls and Sharks and the other 13 unions that make up Saru.

Linking an agreed reduction in broadcast payments to the cost of WPRFU administration, is a stretch. But it also fits the subtle narrative being pushed by rivals that the Stormers are only enjoying this success because of Saru’s largesse.

Saru’s intervention at WPRFU saved the union’s R60-million-a-year DHL sponsorship, which was on the brink of collapse, and paved the way for an equity buyout as well as the sale of Newlands stadium. That will alleviate debts and allow the WPRFU to pay back some money to Saru.

Saru funded the Border Rugby Union for almost four years as it went through administration. Saru also bailed out the Eastern Province Rugby Union for a time. The administration costs of Border and EP were not mentioned.

While neither union has the same overheads as the WPRFU, the Stormers are a brand that adds massive value to the South African rugby landscape.

Saru’s annual report showed that broadcast revenue was up almost R200-million in 2022. The success of the Stormers and their continued participation in the URC is a major contributing factor to the rise in broadcast revenue because they are the most attractive rugby offering in South Africa.

“The context for the reduction in distributions in 2021 and 2022 was the impact that the Covid pandemic had had on the income of SA Rugby and the investment required to give our franchises a platform on which to perform in Europe,” a Saru spokesperson told Daily Maverick.

“However, in conjunction with the members we have established a clear pathway to address the question and it will be considered by the team – made up of representatives of all stakeholders – which has been set up to determine the funding model for 2024 and beyond. All members were treated equally in the process.”

Good travellers

Back to the rugby at hand, Connacht are certainly a surprise package who claimed a third away win in Belfast in the five years Andy Friend has coached the team. That’s significant because before Friend’s arrival, Connacht hadn’t beaten Ulster in Belfast for 58 years.

It speaks to a side that is comfortable away from home, playing in a hostile atmosphere. While Cape Town Stadium will probably have more than 40,000 fans again, it can’t be described as “hostile”. It’s a jovial, party-like atmosphere.

The pitch is falling apart and needs to urgently be relaid in the off-season, but other than that the stadium has quickly become a fortress for the Stormers.

Manie Libbok of the Stormers during their URC quarterfinal against the Bulls at Capew Town Stadium on 6 May 2023. (Photo: Carl Fourie / Gallo Images)

Not that Connacht will be overly intimidated by the occasion. Ulster’s Kingspan Stadium is much smaller, but it is an intimidating venue. Connacht don’t seem to have flinched in the face of that atmosphere.

“They (Connacht) are a tough team and also have a good run of form of late, with a couple of good wins,” Kitshoff said of Connacht’s six-match winning streak coming into this game.

“If we allow them to have their tails up, it’s going to be a long day at the office.

“We must get our stuff right quickly – not giving them any chances, and taking the game away from them. It’s going to be a long journey over the equator and there will be a lot of factors against the travelling team.

“But there’s also the fact that they can pitch up and play a great game of rugby. We’ll have to be at our best to get the win.”

Connacht lost 38-15 when the sides met in Stellenbosch in round two, way back in September 2022. DM

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