Think back to the inaugural season of the United Rugby Championship – and that first month. It was all doom and gloom as South Africa’s teams crawled through inglorious defeat after defeat. The Stormers ended up winning the title. It can happen again, writes Mark Keohane.
The first month of the third season of the URC is following the script of the first one: South Africa’s teams go north, most of them struggled, they lose two, three and four matches, and are written off at the end of November.
Then the northern teams come to South Africa in December and January and by February, South Africa’s teams are top of the charts and leading the charge into the tail end of the league season, and primed to host play-off matches in May.
Think about it: May is a long way away; so too the remaining 14 rounds of an 18 round league competition before the play-offs, which includes a last eight, a last four and a final.
John Dobson’s Stormers hold a unique record in hosting six out of a possible six URC play-off matches in the league’s first two seasons. That took some doing and the net result was a winning final in the first season and a gut-wrenching 19-14 defeat against Munster in a home final in the second season.
The Stormers also hosted the last 16 of the Champions Cup, Europe’s Premier knock-out competition, which has been rebranded the Investec Cup. They won that match and travelled to Exeter for the last eight.
It is said that the only thing a person learns from history is that they don’t learn from history. So, given this, let’s revisit the first two seasons of the URC. The Stormers, having travelled north in the first month, were one from five. They won the title. In the second season Munster were one from six. They won the title.
The URC is not won in the first month, but it is lost in the last month.
Jake White’s Bulls have 15 league points after four rounds and top the table, with a superior differential to Leinster, who on Sunday beat the Dragons. The Bulls’ start has been encouraging because two of those wins have come up north, against Zebre and Cardiff.
The Lions, one from four, could easily have been three from four or four from four. They lost to the Stormers 35-33 in a match they were chasing all afternoon, but they could claim hard luck in losing by a point away to Edinburgh (16-17), lost in the final minutes against Benetton (away from home 10-15) and then got the last minute win (24-23) against the Scarlets in Llanelli.
The Sharks have been poor, but all four defeats have come on tour. They are yet to play at home and have already played Irish giants Munster and Leinster. The Ospreys defeat on neutral ground in London was surprising but the defeat to Zebre was unexpected. Zebre had not won in 23 URC matches and were winless in 28 matches in all competitions. They beat a Sharks team 12-10 that featured seven Springboks in the starting XV. It was a poor result and one that may still haunt them in May when the play-off are determined. The Sharks would be expected to beat Zebre, even if Elon Musk hosted the match on Mars.
Which leaves us with the Stormers. They won in Johannesburg, which was huge in getting five league points, scored 50 points against the Scarlets in Stellenbosch for another five and were well beaten in Glasgow by the Warriors.
Benetton was a game they would have targeted for a win and it was one they should have won. Benetton were strong and defensively they were powerful in repelling the Stormers in the final quarter.
The Stormers, who lost 20-17, had chances to win but their inaccuracy led to ill-discipline and ultimately defeat. There was a chance to level the scores at 20-all with a sitter from in front of the posts, but as Dobson explained afterwards his team played to win and not draw a game.
Fair play and hopefully that one league point does not prove decisive come May.
Talking of the Stormers, the defeat against Benetton requires some context. Benetton are the only unbeaten team in the league after four rounds and they held defending champions Munster to a seven-all draw at home a fortnight ago. They are a tough team to beat at home, even though the Stormers outscored them three tries to two and will feel they let one slip.
The lessons were plenty for the Stormers. A goalkicking return of 33% is not good enough, the handling error rate is not good enough, the lack of respect to hold onto the ball is not good enough, the lack of patience with ball in hand is not good enough, the poor decision-making is not good enough and the set piece, on the day, was not good enough. The Stormers were not good enough to fashion a win against Benetton because of inexperience in critical plays and because many of their senior players picked that match to produce indifferent performances.
Dobson would have expected – and must expect – more from those older heads in a group that is very raw on first class experience.
Dobson, when he was one from five in the first season of the URC, is in a very similar position, at least for the next fortnight. His quartet of World Cup winning Springboks will only be back in December, he has several starting options in the medical tent and he is working with many players who, when the Stormers are at full strength, won’t start.
The context to the team that started against Benetton is that No 8 Evan Roos and lock Ruben van Heerden were the only forwards who started in the URC final and Ruhan Nel (centre), Leolin Zas (wing) and Herschel Jantjies (scrumhalf) were the only backs. Just five of the starting XV on Saturday, started the URC final against Munster.
Here is how the respective Stormers teams looked:
URC final v Munster: 15. Damian Willemse; 14. Angelo Davids, 13. Ruhan Nel, 12. Dan du Plessis, 11. Leolin Zas; 10. Manie Libbok, 9. Herschel Jantjies; 8. Evan Roos, 7. Hacjivah Dayimani, 6. Deon Fourie, 5. Marvin Orie, 4. Ruben Van Heerden, 3. Frans Malherbe, 2. Joseph Dweba, 1. Steven Kitshoff.
URC league match v Benetton: 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Courtnall Skosan, 13 Ben Loader, 12 Ruhan Nel, 11 Leolin Zas, 10 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Evan Roos, 7 Ben-Jason Dixon, 6 Marcel Theunissen, 5 Ruben van Heerden, 4 Adre Smith, 3 Neethling Fouche (captain), 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Ali Vermaak.
Dobson has a big challenge in developing a new pack, but he had this challenge in the title-winning season when he lost seven 2019 World Cup Springboks to other clubs, including Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Duane Vermeulen, Eben Etzebeth and Damian de Allende.
He has a particularly big hurdle to overcome in his tight five, having lost Kitshoff to Ulster and Orie to Perpignan.
But he has done it before and there is enough raw talent, combined with Frans Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok, to be confident the Stormers will be a title contender.
Equally, the Bulls, while the Lions will beat some big teams this season and the Sharks are too good, once their World Cup Boks return, to play second fiddle in Durban.
The congestion on the table is such that the Stormers, having led the league after two rounds, are now seventh with 11 points. If they win next week and the top four lose, then they are again tops. That is how little separates the teams in the opening month, which is why any immediate SA gloom is misplaced in the context of the two-season history of the URC.