DHL Stormers coach John Dobson has paid Leinster the ultimate compliment in sending his strongest available squad for Friday’s top of the table Vodacom United Rugby Championship showdown, writes Mark Keohane.
Leinster, who are 15 wins from 15 starts, are the strongest squad in the league. They are also the most consistent and have the best Academy structures. They set the standard and their coach Leo Cullen is as successful in steering the province as he was when playing 219 matches for them. He has won the biggest club competitions in the north that Leinster play in both as a player and coach.
Dobson, when I spoke with him, relished the opportunity for the Stormers to test themselves against the best in Dublin.
‘We played them at home last season and they fielded a starting XV devoid of their internationals, who were preparing for the Champions Cup play-offs. We won but it was a battle and it highlighted their very strong squad depth and also their very successful Academy structures. I have been consistent in my view that Leinster set the standard and that is why I thought the Bulls semi-final win against them in Dublin last season was the biggest one-off result of the season. It was a huge effort from the Bulls and it showed that it was not impossible to go to Dublin and win.
‘We had the option of resting some of our more seasoned players and also of playing some of the players in the Currie Cup. Our returning Springboks haven’t played for a month and I gave them the option of playing for Western Province in the Currie Cup to ease their competitive re-entry, yet all they wanted was to go to Dublin and experience playing against Leinster. They wanted to soak up the atmosphere and see how we shape as a squad against the log leaders and a team that is unbeaten home and away this season.’
Springbok frontrowers Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe are both in Dublin, as are the dynamic flyhalf/inside centre duo of Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse.
Springbok lock Marvin Orie is also fit again and in Dublin.
Leinster are likely to field some of their returning Irish internationals, if not all of them for the league fixture. Ireland last Saturday thumped a 14-player England to claim only their four Grand Slam trophy in the history of the Six Nations, which was formerly the Five Nations. They were also crowned Six Nations champions, ahead of France, and are currently ranked No 1 in the world.
Leinster, who topped the URC league last season, lost in the semi-final to the Bulls and also lost in the final of the Champions Cup to French club La Rochelle. They are primed and motivated to get silverware this season, and their performances in both competitions have emphasised the desire to win both.
The Stormers, who host the London-based DHL Harlequins in Cape Town on 1st April in the Champions Cup last 16, are second in the URC and by some distance the most successful of the South African franchises. Dobson’s Stormers have also done an unprecedented league double in winning six from six against the Bulls, Sharks and Lions respectively.
Stormers prop Frans Malherbe spoke of the motivation to go to Dublin and put in a performance worthy of defending champions. He also highlighted the ‘win-win’ situation in having the strongest available squad playing, as he said it meant there was every possibility of a Stormers win. If not, he added, it would be a reality check to the players of what was needed should they play Leinster in the play-offs or the final, which will be in Dublin if Leinster are in the final.
Leinster and the Stormers are both in the Champions Cup play-offs and the final of the Champions Cup is in Dublin, so it could be a case of the men from Cape Town having to make a couple of trips to Dublin if they progress to both finals.
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