Opinion: Stormers’ character at heart of miraculous turnaround in United Rugby Championship

Jon Cardinelli

The Stormers coaches and players deserve high praise after rolling with a series of punches that may have sent lesser teams to the canvas, writes Jon Cardinelli.

The Stormers deserve to sit at the top of the South African Shield, and in second place on the United Rugby Championship table.

They deserve to be in a position to host a URC play-off, and to feature in next season’s Champions Cup.

Those who would argue with such statements need only refer to the Stormers‘ results against local and international opposition. They’ve been the best South African side on show.

Feared the worst

Eight months ago, however, many critics and fans feared the worst for one of South Africa‘s biggest and most important franchises.

The actions taken by Stormers and Western Province president Zelt Marais – who was later suspended after SA Rugby placed the union in administration – threatened to run the organisation into the ground.

Sponsors and key investors departed, as did a clutch of senior players. Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, Bongi Mbonambi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and several others decided to move on.

Critics and former Boks with ties to the team and union voiced their concerns. The Stormers, they predicted, would become a semi-professional outfit in a matter of years unless the powers that be intervened.

The financial situation impacted on the players’ salaries. The well-publicised squabbling between senior board-members casted the franchise and all its members in an embarrassing light.

Somehow, John Dobson and his coaches kept the core of the team together during those troubled times. The culture and character of the group was tested, and while the players showed signs of bending, they never broke.

The inaugural tour to Europe panned out as many expected it would. The Stormers lost to Benetton and Munster, before bouncing back to draw with Edinburgh and beat the Dragons.

The Stormers lost heavily to the Lions in Cape Town, before responding with some impressive results – a win and draw – against the more-fancied Bulls and Sharks.

Every week, Dobson highlighted the never-say-die attitude of his charges. Those comments referenced the character of the individuals off the field as well as on it.

Each time captain Steven Kitshoff attended a press conference, he spoke about the spirit within the side. Fly-half Manie Libbok – who was discarded by the Bulls and then the Sharks before finding his groove at the Stormers – credited the coaches for instilling a sense of belief and confidence.

Against all odds, the Stormers developed into a well-balanced unit. They proved that they could play bold attacking rugby, and that they could go toe-to-toe with the more tactically astute teams.

It would be inaccurate to state that they are suddenly world-beaters or that they have what it takes to beat the better teams overseas.

As the results confirm, the Stormers – and indeed all the South African franchises – are yet to topple one of the major URC teams in European conditions. They still have much to prove.

That said, it’s important to note their progress in spite of the circumstances. While the situation has improved at board level since SA Rugby placed the union in administration last October, the fight behind closed doors continues.

Dobson deserves high praise for keeping the team together during the especially dark days of 2020 and 2021, and for pushing the team to realise its potential in 2022.

While you can’t blame those high-profile individuals who opted to leave the Stormers for more stable environments in South African and abroad, you have to respect those who have stuck to the task. They have effectively secured a better future for the Cape Town-based franchise.

Last year, the outlook was bleak. It was feared that the Stormers would finish at the bottom of the South African Shield.

As things stand, the Stormers are well placed to advance to the Champions Cup – the biggest club tournament in the world.

The players will benefit from competing in this elite tournament, and the franchise itself will benefit from the exposure to the European market.

Thanks to the courage and determination of those in the current set-up, the future of the Stormers is looking increasingly bright.

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