CAPE TOWN – “This is our year!” That’s often been the refrain of long-suffering Stormers supporters ahead of a Super Rugby season, and for all the right reasons.
The 1999 ‘Men In Black’, under coach Alan Solomons, created something magical on and off the field in their run to a Newlands semi-final, only for a financial bonus dispute to disrupt them, which played a major part in a 33-18 defeat to the Otago Highlanders.
The 2004 campaign also ended at the semi-final stage, where Gert Smal’s powerful forward pack was not enough as the Crusaders won 27-16 in Christchurch.
They reached the 2010 final against the Bulls, having signed some big names such as Bryan Habana and Jaque Fourie to complement the local stars such as Schalk Burger, Andries Bekker and Gio Aplon.
But apart from being on the wrong side of referee Craig Joubert’s whistle at Orlando Stadium, the Stormers’ tight five was never going to gain parity against an all-Springbok Bulls front five.
And even though they ended second on the log in 2011 and topped the standings in 2012, the conservative style that the Stormers adopted under Allister Coetzee proved to be their undoing.
They haven’t reached the last-four since, so why can 2020 be different? Well, for a start, they have seven members of the victorious Springbok World Cup squad in their ranks – captain Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Frans Malherbe, Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Herschel Jantjies and Damian Willemse.
Du Toit was chosen as the best player in the world last year, Kolisi has inspired a nation and the rest of that group are just as hungry to add to their gold medals from Japan.
“We need to have the same attitude as (the Boks) had (at the World Cup). I’ve never won a title here, and that’s my drive. The nice thing now is that we are at home for half of the time, and we enjoy each other’s company, which is also why we were successful at the Boks,” Kolisi said ahead of the SuperHero Sunday warm-up against the Sharks at the FNB Stadium, which the Stormers won 21-19.
“That’s the same drive that Dobbo (coach John Dobson) wants here – that the Stormers are the most important thing, and the people supporting us.
“What I learnt last year is having a coach who has a plan with his coaching staff, and they all buy into it. And us as players buying into that, so that when we step on to the field, everyone agrees and buys into that. So far, coach Dobbo has been doing that well.
“He gives us input, that is the most important thing. If something doesn’t work, he allows us the time to say ‘You know what, this is not working. Let’s work like this’.
“Getting everybody to buy into this and we just turning it on out on the field and work on it. Buying into his plan and making it into our plan.”
Ah, the game plan. Rugby romantics have been heard screaming ‘Swing!’ for years at Newlands as they urged the Stormers to fling the ball through the backs.
For modern-day rugby technicians, that is outdated thinking, as the approach should be all about structures and defence.
The truth lies probably somewhere in-between, and it is something Kolisi is determined to implement from the Springboks.
As much as Rassie Erasmus’ six forwards on the bench allowed the Boks to keep on the physical pressure, his backs also scored some sparkling tries in Japan – none more so in the final, where Makazole Mapimpi and Cheslin Kolbe both rounded off fine efforts against England.
The Stormers have the forwards to even adopt the ‘Bomb Squad’ philosophy if they so wish, especially in the front row, where Malherbe, Mbonambi and Kitshoff can be followed by Wilco Louw, Scarra Ntubeni and Ali Vermaak.
And having such impressive depth upfront could just be the difference in 2020. Even though they may be lacking some big Bok names in the backline, there are some lethal operators in the shape of Jantjies, Willemse, Dillyn Leyds, Sergeal Petersen and Ruhan Nel – and hopefully Seabelo Senatla can finally make his mark in Super Rugby.
Kolisi and Dobson, though, are not just going to tell their backs to ‘Swing!’ it.
“We are obviously known as the team that has got the flair and everything over the last couple of years. But one thing we want to do… we’ve got exciting backs, and we’ve see our pack – a lot of guys have been Springboks – and the best way is to find that mix,” the Bok captain said.
“We’ve got to make sure that we know what our strong points are, and the most important thing is to win games – it doesn’t matter how ugly it is. We want to play rugby that people want to watch, but we want to be smart about it at the same time.
“We are not going to force stuff. We want to make sure that we win, no matter how ugly it is – because at the end of the day, you can play the exciting rugby, but if you are not winning the game, that’s not going to bring people back to Newlands.”
Dobson concurs. “The experience in the way Siya and the guys played in the World Cup, and just the sheer numbers of who comes back from the forwards, means that we have to achieve forward dominance.
“Unfortunately, what I said last week was interpreted by some as meaning that we were just going to play a forward-based game. We have to use the pack to generate the momentum for the amazingly exciting backs that we have – it’s not something from NASA!
“Siya has exceptional X-factor as a carrier of a rugby ball, and we would be stupid to deprive him of that skill and make him chase kicks or hit 40 breakdowns. But also, we cannot spurn the power and the personnel that we have upfront.
“It’s a good hybrid plan, but we will be harnessing and conditioning to use the forwards that we’ve got.”
Add in a relatively favourable draw, which sees the Stormers play nine out of their first 10 matches in South Africa – starting with the Hurricanes on February 1 – and the fact that it is the last season at Newlands, it is looking like the stars are aligned for Kolisi and Co…