It is no April fool’s joke: John Dobson’s DHL Stormers are the best team in South Africa and on the 1st April they get the chance to prove they are among the best in Europe when they host London’s DHL Harlequins in an historic first ever DHL derby, writes Mark Keohane.
Dobson’s daring darlings have proven to be pioneers in every sense of the word, turning the DHL Stadium into a new home and fortress with 20 successive wins in the Vodacom URC and the Heineken Champions Cup. They won the inaugural URC title and last season were also the SA Shield winners. This season they’ve done the double on every South African franchise in the URC, home and away.
They currently are 2nd in the league with 59 points, a whopping 16 league points clear of Jake White’s 6th placed Vodacom Bulls.
White and the Bulls, during Covid’s pandemic, were South Africa’s finest in winning two successive Currie Cups and Super Rugby Unlocked titles. But the tide has turned in the last 12 months and the Stormers have won five successive matches in the URC against the Bulls, including last season’s final.
The margins have been small, but they have not been insignificant because you don’t fluke five successive wins.
All team sports work in cycles and currently this is the DHL Stormers’ cycle.
It is a situation that has hurt their coastal neighbours the Sharks and also tortured the likes of the Bulls and Lions, but right now there is no denying that Dobson, as a coach, and his squad of players, comfortably occupy top spot on the podium.
The Stormers, should they beat Harlequins, and make it 21 successive home wins, will play their quarter-final away from home and because of the league structure would have to play a semi-final away from home. The Champions Cup final venue is always confirmed a season in advance and this season’s final is at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
There has been talk that Cape Town’s DHL Stadium is being considered as an option for 2023/24 season.
Dobson’s Stormers are proving popular with locals and it is because of a delightful playing style and also winning results.
Everybody loves a winner and Dobson and his Stormers have delivered in every possible way in winning the franchise’s first ever title in 26 years.
The move from Newlands to Green Point is also starting to show spectator support, with the Stormers on three occasions exceeding 30 000 in attendance. The Stormers last home URC match against the Sharks was the highest, with 30 700 at the ground, and it was also the biggest crowd to watch the Stormers in Cape Town since 2017.
Only the Springboks, with 51 000 spectators at the DHL Stadium against Wales last year, have exceeded the turnout against the Sharks.
Dobson was bullish in a Sunday Times interview and said the players should be celebrated for their achievements and for currently being the best franchise. He said the challenge was to be consistent and to be the best franchise on and off the field.
Dobson also called for Stormers supporters to break every attendance record at the DHL Stadium when Harlequins are in Cape Town.
‘It is a huge match and we have the privilege of hosting a last 16 encounter in our first ever Champions Cup campaign. It also happens to be against DHL Harlequins, so for our sponsor DHL it is unique that both of the teams they sponsor are facing each other,’ said Dobson, who this season has also invested his time with the Western Province Currie Cup squad.
Dobson and the Stormers coaching support staff make up the Currie Cup coaching squad and they will juggle their responsibilities with both professional outfits.
‘There is a healthy respect for the URC and Currie Cup and we want to be successful in both competitions. The Currie Cup isn’t just a feeder into the URC but also a competition that allows URC squad players game time. It is a challenge to run parallel campaigns but every day we learn something new about the challenge and how to do it better the next time.
‘We had a fantastic start to the Currie Cup, in winning in Johannesburg, but every weekend we start with zero on the scoreboard. There is a humility about the players that is essential if we are to continue to improve and achieve consistent winning results. And there is a work ethic in the week that currently gives us such self-belief come match day.’
KEO UNCUT – SUNDAY TIMES