Stormers coach Dobson admits to feeling uncomfortable with leaving key players at home for Champions Cup

The first round of European action for South Africa’s teams was massively successful, but Stormers coach John Dobson admitted to being uncomfortable with not sending his strongest team to Leicester for their Champions Cup game.

Despite a callow team against a star-studded Leicester side including Springbok World Cup winners Handré Pollard and Jasper Wiese, the Stormers were unlucky to come away from Welford Road with nothing.

Leicester won 35-26, denying the Stormers a losing bonus point. But considering the gulf in experience and perceived class between the teams, it was a hugely impressive display from the Stormers.

The challenge of juggling the United Rugby Championship (URC) commitments with Champions Cup, and the wicked travel schedule, forced Dobson to leave most of his “first choice” players at home.

The Stormers will compete at the DHL Stadium for the first time this season when they take on defending Champions Cup heavyweights La Rochelle on 16 December.

That meant the likes of Deon Fourie, Evan Roos, Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse, Herschel Jantjies and Joseph Dweba, didn’t make the trip north last weekend.

“I have so much pride in the performance,” Dobson said after the loss to Leicester. 

“I don’t know if our best team would have done better, but for the competition, the occasion for Leicester, we would have liked to have been at full noise. It is a pity.

“I don’t want to be doing what I did today. If we had a two-week trip where we came here for two weeks, then we could come full noise, like we do in the United Rugby Championship. That might give us a chance.

“If we got rolled over 44-3, then everyone would say South Africans are doing damage to the competition. Hopefully, we did justice to it, but I don’t want to do it again.”

Courtnall Skosan of the Stormers catches the ball during the Investec Champions Cup match between Leicester Tigers and DHL Stormers at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium on 10 December 2023 in Leicester, England. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Forced hand

Dobson is a rugby romantic and a proud historian of the game. Being forced to devalue a tournament of the Champions Cup’s stature like that, did not sit well with him, but pragmatism had to rule the day.

Four teams out of the six in each of the three Champions Cup Pools will advance to the knockout stages, so targeting home victories should be enough. As unpalatable as Dobson found the scenario, it was the right thing to do.

Neither he nor any coaches make decisions around fixture lists and competitions. It’s a stark example of how tricky it is integrating South Africa into the northern hemisphere competitions. 

At this stage, there is no other option but to seek closer alignment of the URC and Champions Cup fixtures, or as Dobson says, at least break the Champions Cup away matches into larger blocks. It will have to be considered in the future.

Pollard, who scored 20 points for Leicester in a man-of-the-match performance, expressed some sympathy for the Stormers and Dobson’s predicament.

“If we’re going to have them [South African teams] in the competition, then we should try to accommodate them a bit better,” was Pollard’s post-match assessment.

Despite the setback – the Stormers being the only SA team to lose in Europe this weekend – there were a slew of positive take-outs from the match.

The performance of debutant flyhalf Jurie Mathee was eye-catching. The 23-year-old former Paarl Gim player came up against Pollard, a former Paarl Gim man himself, and played with composure, courage and skill.

“Jurie hasn’t even played a friendly for us … he’s never worn a Stormers jersey. He just seemed so mature, didn’t he?” Dobson asked rhetorically.  

“Nothing bothered him, even when things went wrong – now they [he and Pollard] are sitting in the passage and talking. It’s a cool story and a good reflection on South Africa.”

No 8 Keke Morabe was excellent in direct combat with Wiese, and the young second row of Connor Evans and Hendre Stassen really stood up.

“If you think of the fact that we’ve got 18, 19 players in Cape Town, to see Connor Evans and Hendre Staessen (play like that) augurs well for the future. The positives by far outweigh the negatives today.”

Josh Bassett of Leicester Tigers dives in to score their last-minute, bonus-point fourth try during the Investec Champions Cup match between Leicester Tigers and DHL Stormers at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium on 10 December 2023 in Leicester, England. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Bulls flex muscles

The Bulls, who are third in the URC, continued to ensure Loftus remains a fortress, with an impressive 27-16 win over English heavyweights Saracens.

Saracens were reduced to 14 men when No 8 Billy Vunipola received a red card for a reckless challenge on opposite number Cameron Hanekom, but even before that, the visitors were struggling.

In fact, the red card ushered in the Bulls’ worst period of the match and Saracens’ best moments.

Saracens flyhalf Owen Farrell, who has stepped away from Test rugby to protect his mental health, was the target of unnecessary booing from a small minority at Loftus, which led to coach Jake White apologising to the former England skipper.

“I apologise for the booing Owen Farrell received. That’s not what we’re about,” White said.

“I don’t understand why it happens and why people have jumped on the bandwagon in terms of the negative media. I said in the week that he’s an unbelievable player and what he’s achieved in England is phenomenal.

“I’m really disappointed because I wanted the people to enjoy seeing him play at Loftus Versfeld.

“You equate that to watching Tiger Woods play golf or Michael Jordan play basketball. I apologise – it’s not really who we are. We will address that.”

White was happy with the win despite the lack of a try-scoring bonus point.

“I’m happy to have beaten a team of Saracens’ stature. It’s quite ironic that people say we should’ve put them away and given them 50 points,” White said.

“How they defended their line to deny us a bonus point speaks to the quality of them as a group. We’ve learned that if you want to be a champion at this level, even on your bad day you need to be as ruthless as they were in the end.”

The teams scrummage during the Investec Champions Cup match between Leicester Tigers and DHL Stormers at the Mattioli Woods Welford Road Stadium on 10 December 2023 in Leicester, England. (Photo: David Rogers / Getty Images)

Challenge Cup joy

In the Challenge Cup, it was smiles all around for SA’s teams as the Cheetahs beat Zebre Parma 33-15 in Italy, the Sharks thumped Section Paloise (Pau) 45-5 in Durban, and the Lions earned a 28-12 victory against Perpignan in France.

Eben Etzebeth and Lukhanyo Am each scored two tries for the Sharks while Ruan Pienaar accumulated 18 points for the Cheetahs.

For the Lions, flyhalf Jordan Hendrikse enjoyed a superb afternoon, scoring 23 points from seven penalties and a conversion. DM


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