The DHL Stormers completed a remarkable Vodacom United Rugby Championship double in winning back-to-back South African Shields, did enough to host a home quarter-final and used more than 55 players to balance the requirements of playing in two European competitions, writes Mark Keohane.
The learnings for coach John Dobson, his coaches and his players were huge as they trekked back and forth to Scotland, France, Ireland, England, Wales and Italy. Ditto for the other South African franchises. It also was a new experience for the Cheetahs to base themselves in Italy for the European Challenge Cup group stages.
The Stormers, champions of the inaugural URC when they beat the Vodacom Bulls in last season’s final, backed up their first ever international title in the franchise’s history with a league campaign that screamed consistency and growth.
The numbers are staggeringly similar. Last season, the Stormers won 12, drew two and lost four of their 18 league matches. They finished with 61 points, which included nine bonus points. They then won all three home play-off matches. This season they won 12, drew two and lost four of their 18 league matches and finished with 68 points, which included 16 bonus points.
The quality of their play, the powerful presence of their brand as a daily constant on every media platform and the fan love affair that was rekindled last season, meant the Stormers could boast three 30 000-plus home crowd attendances, with the biggest being a Stormers record at the DHL Stadium and that match being the biggest crowd to attend a Stormers game in Cape Town since 2017.
The Stormers also played two home matches at the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch, hosting Connacht in their season opener, and completing their league obligations against Benetton at the same venue on Friday night. Both matches were won but the significant difference was the Stormers nearly doubled their crowd attendance.
The squad also played a league match at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Gqeberha, with 15 000 in attendance and packed out the stadium in George for a pre-season friendly against South Western Districts.
The squad is one that represents the people of Western Province and is insistent they play for the people of Western Province. Dobson, captain Steven Kitshoff and all squad members always talk of the importance of their support base and also of their desire to play a style of rugby that speaks to the cross-cultural DNA that defines rugby in Western Province.
They certainly have been true to this, in attitude, in style and in selection. This is a team that speaks to every rugby supporter in the province.
There was disappointment a week ago when they lost for the first time in 22 matches at home and for the first in 19 at the DHL Stadium. The defeat relegated them from second to third in the URC, on points difference.
There was also disappointment that they lost in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup when a fast start from English hosts Exeter proved too much for a Stormers squad that only arrived in England three days before kick-off.
The disappointments, though, are minor when weighted against the major advancements of squad growth, player development and consistency in winning. They won four from six at their first attempt in the Champions Cup, including winning in England and beating Harlequins, London Irish and Clermont at home.
They also were the only team not to lose to Leinster in Dublin this season, drawing 22-all.
The biggest victory for Dobson and his coaches was that only one player from last season’s title-winning starting XV, started this season opener against Connacht. Squad depth was fast tracked through giving young players opportunities and there was no hesitation to look beyond the core current Springboks.
The Stormers, in two seasons of the URC have lost just eight from 39 matches, with their victories including six in a row against their South African rivals this season. Remarkable.
— BKT United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial) April 22, 2023