John Dobson’s Stormers have beaten Jake White’s Bulls six times in succession in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, but the transformation numbers are even more damning in favour of the Cape-based club, writes Mark Keohane.
The Bulls, with the injection of 12 players for the new season, are the strongest they have been since the the launch of the URC in 2021. Springbok World Cup winner Willie le Roux and Springbok prop Wilco Louw have made a big impact, with Louw providing substance to the front row and Le Roux slotting into the Bulls as if he had been at Loftus his entire career.
The Bulls are playing damn good rugby and their demolition of teams at their fortress, Loftus Versfeld, has been heart-warming for any South African rugby supporter, especially the way in which they demolished Wales’s Scarlets, Ireland’s Connacht and England’s Saracens. The Sharks have also been hammered in Pretoria this season.
The Bulls have been brilliant at home, but as the scoring numbers soar the one thing the Bulls have failed at is their numbers when it comes to transformation.
It is unfortunate, given they basically have bought Boland as their feeder union and with it one of the rugby hot spots of producing players of colour. It is also unfortunate in the current climate of South African rugby when one considers the incredible impact Rassie Erasmus has had on the Springboks, as National Director of Rugby and the primary selector, when it comes to giving players of colour opportunity and game time.
In contrast to the Bulls, the Stormers and Sharks lead the way in their squad, match day and, especially, their starting XVs when it comes to transformed teams.
In the history of the URC, Dobson’s Stormers have averaged 12 players in their match 23 and eight in their starting XV. The Bulls, by contrast, have been consistent in picking just a quartet of players of colour in their starting XV and two among the bench. Occasionally, it has been 5/2 or 4/3.
That’s a 12-6 victory for the Stormers against the Bulls in what is a bigger triumph than any match result.
The Stormers, in the 2021/2022 URC final against the Bulls in Cape Town, started with nine players of colour and four on the bench for a total of 13 from 23. Of those nine, six won’t play on Saturday against the Bulls, because of injury or joining another team. Yet, despite this, Dobson’s Stormers for Saturday will start with seven players of colour.
The Bulls, in the 2021/22 final, started with four players of colour and two on the bench. Three of those starting players were from the Western Cape and one was an import from the Lions.
The Western Cape influence in the Bulls is strong, with Willie le Roux (fullback) schooled at Paul Roos in Stellenbosch, Canan Moodie (wing, schooled at Boland Landbou) and World Cup-winner Kurt-Lee Arendse another brilliant player off the conveyor belt of Paarl and the University of Western Cape.
The Stormers, with Dobson non-negotiable on his squad being representative of the people of Western Province, continues to nurture talent from every suburb, and the likes of Moodie and Arendse won’t be missed among the next generation.
Dobson, like Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber with the Springboks, has crushed the perception that a coach can’t transform and win. These men, through their intent to transform the game and ability to identify talent, have overseen the most transformed professional teams in the history of South African rugby. The Boks won successive World Cups and the Stormers won six successive home play-off matches in the URC, won the title in the first season and lost in the final few minutes against Munster in front of a tournament record crowd of 56 600 – the biggest ever crowd to attend a rugby match at Cape Town’s DHL Stadium.
The Bulls have been left behind in this regard, which is surprising when one considers the ownership of the Bulls.
It is also surprising how limited the match-day selection numbers are when it comes to players of colour at the Bulls, as the club should be at the forefront of this change. The lack of black player representation from within the province also can’t be ignored.
Whatever Saturday’s result, the Stormers are winners because of their attitude towards transformation and the Bulls, even when winning matches, are losers in South African rugby’s greatest sustainability challenge, which is transformation.