UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
Manie Libbok masterclass steers Stormers to URC home final after Munster edge Leinster
Because the Stormers were seeded third going into the playoffs and Munster fifth, the Cape side will host the final after beating Connacht 43-25, which will generate about R10m in ticket sales revenue.
A magical Manie Libbok masterclass, the ability to absorb pressure and moments of exceptional flair were the hallmarks of the Stormers’ 43-25 United Rugby Championship (URC) semifinal win over Connacht at the weekend.
Libbok, who has now settled any debate about the identity of the second flyhalf in the Bok Rugby World Cup squad later this year, scored 23 points. He landed five conversions and one penalty in tough, blustery conditions, and scored two excellent tries.
He played with swagger when needed and pragmatism when required. It was a polished all-round performance sprinkled with moments of genius that are the result of rare talent.
The Stormers will now have a chance to defend the title they won last year. But more than that, in an unexpected twist they will host the final on 27 May after Munster edged Leinster 16-15 in a titanic all-Irish semi.
Leinster, with one eye on next week’s Champions Cup final against La Rochelle, didn’t select a full-strength team to face Munster and paid the price against their oldest and most bitter rivals.
“The only reason we want to play the final in Cape Town is for the people and the revenue. I think us going to the Aviva [in Dublin] would be a great experience for this group. We will put up a good performance there,” Stormers coach John Dobson said after the game and before the end of the Leinster-Munster clash.
“We want to do something very special in two weeks’ time. Whether it is here or there. I promise if we go to the Aviva, we will not roll over. It will be a proper game of rugby.”
That “proper” game of rugby will now take place at the DHL Stadium in Cape Town. Because the Stormers were seeded third going into the playoffs and Munster fifth, the Cape side will host the final.
It’s great news for the team, knowing they have home-ground advantage for the match, but it is also a boost for the Western Province Rugby Football Union. A final will generate around R10-million in ticket sales revenue.
Considering the Stormers finished third on the log, just hosting a semifinal was a bonus after Connacht upset second-seeded Ulster in the quarterfinals. A massive 47,261 fans pitched up for the semifinal and the stadium’s capacity of 52,000 might be reached for the final.
These two “bonus” home games will net close to R20-million and also further strengthen the Stormers’ hand in equity sale negotiations because they are now confirmed as one of the elite clubs in the global game.
“It’s a little bit emotional, to be honest,” Dobson said in reference to securing a second final in as many years.
“Our big fear throughout the year was to prove that we belonged and that last season wasn’t a fluke. I think if you had said we would go to the final again this season … it would have been difficult to believe.
“We lost a few players. We gathered more Springboks — Evan [Roos] and Deon [Fourie]; Marvin [Orie] became a Springbok again — so it’s an incredible feeling for us.”
The Stormers made an uncharacteristically slow start to the match. They were subdued and Connacht, a team with real fight, didn’t need another invitation to make the most of the Stormers’ early jitters.
The Stormers were under pressure in the opening 12 minutes, with Connacht running into an 8-0 lead thanks to a Jack Carty penalty and a Mack Hansen try, but a 15-minute period of dazzling Stormers flair changed the course of the match.
After spilling an early pass inside his in-goal area, Libbok shrugged off his only blemish of the day and took command of the match.
Fullback Damian Willemse cut a hole in the Connacht defence and a couple of phases later Libbok stabbed a superb cross-field kick/pass for wing Angelo Davids to run on to. The former Blitzbok still had some work to do as the ball wobbled in the swirling wind, but he took it in his stride and scored.
Libbok, with Willemse holding the ball steady on the tee, then landed a tough conversion near the touchline.
Minutes later, Libbok fielded an ugly, bobbling ball in his 22 with Connacht defenders closing him down. He looked up, threw a dummy and ghosted into space, buying himself just enough time to send a raking kick downfield.
Connacht fullback Tiernan O’Halloran had no option but to kick deep for touch where Stormers centre Daniel du Plessis took a quick throw to Willemse. The pair exchanged passes and broke the defensive line down the left. Herschel Jantjies was on hand to help before he offloaded to … who else, but Libbok, running a fine support line to score the try.
The crowd had barely caught their breath when Davids punched a hole through the green defensive line and passed to that man Libbok again, who glided in for his second try.
In the space of 16 minutes the Stormers scored 24 unanswered points.
It was a game in which Connacht dominated the stats — they had 71% possession, 67% territory and made only 59 tackles to the Stormers’ 179.
“Going into the game, we knew that the Stormers are a team of some brilliant individuals and we actually knew Manie was probably going to be the key,” said Connacht director of rugby Andy Friend.
“We needed to try and quieten him down. And I thought for probably the first 15, 20 minutes we did. But then he found his mojo and off they went. So, you’ve got to pay credit to that.
“At the end, I think the better team won, to be honest with you, because in these games you’ve got to take your chances and we had more chances, which we didn’t take. They had fewer chances and took them and they ended up scoring six tries to four so the better team won in the end.”
Connacht never stopped scrapping and scored close-range tries just before halftime and midway through the second half to narrow the deficit to just four points again.
But the Stormers, suddenly under pressure again after their earlier purple patch, found another gear.
From a seemingly nothing position, just outside their 22, Libbok decided to attack again, flinging a long ball wide to Du Plessis. The inside centre threw an even wider pass to Ruhan Nel who suddenly had some space.
He made 20 metres and then fed wing Leolin Zas down the left. Zas surged ahead before finding scrumhalf Paul de Wet, who rounded off the move.
Naturally, given the nature of the game, Connacht scored again with five minutes remaining to make it a six-point deficit and send anxiety through the crowd.
But instead of trying to manage the last moments in a conservative fashion, Libbok and the Stormers did what they do best. They attacked again.
Libbok this time launched an up-and-under which Tom Daly spilled in dangerous territory. Stormers flank Hacjivah Dayimani was first to pounce on the loose ball and delivered a clever offload to Marcel Theunissen for the score that confirmed victory.
But the Stormers were not done. Libbok stabbed another of his inch-perfect kick/passes to Dayimani on the right wing. The loosie steadied himself and threw a fine behind-the-back pass for Nel to score.
It was a fitting denouement to a game where flair overcame power. DM
Stormers – Tries: Angelo Davids, Manie Libbok (2), Paul de Wet, Marcel Theunissen, Ruhan Nel. Conversions: Libbok (5). Penalty: Libbok
Connacht – Tries: Mack Hansen, Conor Oliver, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Byron Ralston. Conversion: Jack Carty. Penalty: Carty.