Opinion: Unbeaten home record transcends the Stormers into one of the world’s most elite

Stormers stars Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok celebrate. Credit: Alamy
Stormers stars Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok celebrate. Credit: Alamy

The Stormers won their maiden international title last season in the inaugural United Rugby Championship (URC) against the odds with the union itself in disarray.

To be crowned champions under the circumstances of financial turmoil and following a player exodus soon before that was nothing short of outstanding. The odds were stacked against a side relatively unknown in its strength.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2023, when John Dobson’s men can look back on the 2022 calendar year without a loss at home – an outrageous feat.

Many of the players whose quality was unknown are now branded superstars. Some have become Springboks, and others are queuing up to follow the same seemingly inevitable path.

What is certain is this Stormers team that broke the mould and claimed silverware for the people of Cape Town have proved that their rise to glory was no fluke but is the optimal, harnessing of the beauty that is Western Cape rugby.

Joyous style

Dobson and his coaching staff have not only created a fortress at Cape Town Stadium but have done so with some of the most beautiful free-flowing, running rugby.

Whether it is Manie Libbok scything through the defensive line, Damian Willemse dancing around tacklers, or even Hacjivah Daymani playing as a backline player disguised as a forward, the Stormers always seem to score stunning tries.

What comes with the trust given to players to express themselves is happiness, and it is tangible in the Stormers’ ranks. Players are willing to do the hard work upfront and ensure the fundamentals are in place to unlock the venom in the backline.

The power of the collective is incredible to see in action.

Combinations and depth

A key part of how the Stormers unlock defences and win games is the balance in their combinations starting from upfront. Boks Joseph Dweba and Frans Malherbe join skipper Steven Kitshoff as the first-choice front-row with talented stars Sazi Sandi, Neethling Fouche, JJ Kotze and Andre Hugo-Venter ever-improving options.

The Stormers can pick and choose their combinations to provide experience and support to the developing players whilst also putting the likes of Malherbe in bubble wrap and encouraging longevity for one of the country’s best-ever scrummagers.

Options are aplenty in the loose trio as well. Veteran Deon Fourie has long been channelling his inner Heinrich Brussouw and could currently be regarded as one of the world’s best over the ball. The rampant Evan Roos has been injured, but despite his immense quality, his absence has yet to be felt to a great extent as Dayimani is setting everything alight at this stage with his mind-blowing pace and athleticism. Willie Engelbrecht has also capitalised on Roos’s absence and quickly became a stalwart in the seven shirt.

The half-backs follow the same suit, with World Cup-winning scrum-half Herschel Jantjies genuinely fighting for a spot in the starting line-up with Paul de Wet, who has turned from a raw talent to a mercurial scrum-half over the last two seasons.

Libbok is now a Bok and is showing his class weekly, and he goes from strength to strength every time he plays. Bizarrely the first-choice Bok fly-half Willemse does not even play 10 in Cape Town but is there if required, not to mention the prodigy Sacha Feinburg-Mnogmezulu who is set to return from injury soon.

Dan du Plessis has been tremendous this season at 12 or 13 and with whoever he has played. Sulieman Hartzenberg only shifted to 13 in Ruhan Nel’s absence but looks possibly even more potent than on the wing. Don’t forget that if the game calls for it, Willemse starts at inside centre.

The back-three is littered with speed. In the wings, top try scorer from last season, Leolin Zas, has continued his form, Angelo Davids is settling into the fifteens game, and the most prolific South African sevens star in history, Seabelo Senatla, lurks on the sidelines for now.

Clayton Blommetjies has been a welcome addition and only knows one setting – all out attack. Having the full-back play alongside Libbok and Willemse is a scary prospect, but the former Cheetah has done well off the bench as an impact sub if he doesn’t suit the particular clash as a starter.

Ultimately Dobson is blessed, for the most part, with options to tweak combinations based on the players’ different attributes, complementary skills and different levels of experience and maturity to keep moving the team forward.

Often sporting teams who defy the odds fall away soon after their moment in the spotlight but this Stormers side has transcended their club into one of the world’s most elite.

READ MORE: United Rugby Championship: Five takeaways from the South African derbies including Hacjivah Dayimani knocking on the Springbok door

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