Springboks back, so Stormers must ‘find each other’ against Bulls

Damian Willemse (No 15), Warrick Gelant (centre) and Dan du Plessis (No 12) are all pushing for Stormers starting berths this week. Photo: BackpagePix

Damian Willemse (No 15), Warrick Gelant (centre) and Dan du Plessis (No 12) are all pushing for Stormers starting berths this week. Photo: BackpagePix

Published Feb 29, 2024


While having a few Springboks and others back is a boost, it also means that the Stormers need to find their feet quickly to continue their long-running dominance over the Bulls on Saturday.

The Capetonians will travel to Pretoria with their four World Cup-winning Boks in Frans Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse, which will be valuable in front of an expected 52 000-strong capacity crowd at Loftus Versfeld (5.05pm kick-off).

But the fact is that those four players have been away for several weeks, and in the case of Malherbe, months as he hasn’t played since the World Cup final in late October.

Exactly how coach John Dobson will mix and match his backline will be a serious poser.

Willemse could slot it in at fullback, but Warrick Gelant was outstanding in the last game where they beat the Sharks.

Dan du Plessis is also expected back from injury, so inside centre is also well covered – although you would think that Willemse will wear the No 12 jersey, with Libbok at No 10.

Similarly, Fourie has had to observe his Springbok resting protocols, and will have to go at full tilt to counter the Bulls’ loose forwards at the breakdown on Saturday.

“We are very happy to have the Springboks back. We just have to get our cohesion right. That’s continuous improvement, that’s something we want to improve: finding each other better. That’s the one thing we are working hard on,” Stormers forwards coach Rito Hlungwani said this week.

“It’s a good problem to have, and at the same time it is tough to leave out certain guys. There are lots of positions that are highly competitive, but it is a good problem to have.

“The level of competition in our team is quite pleasing, so it’s really nice to have Frans back – highly experienced, probably one of the best tightheads in the world.

“That will definitely improve our environment, and push Neetas (Neethling Fouché) to improve even more. Whether he (Malherbe) starts or whether he’s on the bench, he will have a role to play, and so will Neethling.

“We’ve also got a few youngsters back in Sazi Sandi and Lee-Marvin Mazibuko, so it’s been a fight at training for everyone to prove themselves.

“It’s very tough (at lock as well), because Ruben (van Heerden) and Adré (Smith) have been doing really well. But we also know the level and standards that Salmaan brings to the table.

“Having Salmaan back has just risen the temperature a bit more, and hopefully that will help us get a little bit more out of Adré and Ruben, and also get him to chase hard again to get his position back.”

Stormers fans may be crowing on social media about their team’s 7-0 record against the Bulls, but the players and coaches aren’t getting carried away by that success.

Jake White’s Bulls have improved this season, and are the top SA side in third place on the URC log, having scored the most tries and points in the competition so far.

The Cape side have gone through a tough time this season, having failed to win a single game on their European tour late last year, and know that the Bulls can turn things around this weekend.

“The history that everyone talks about is not something we’ve discussed – that’s for social media. We are well aware that they are a very strong team. They are above us on the log, and have the most players invited to the alignment camp. They have lots of Springboks in their team,” Hlungwani said.

“They have a highly experienced coaching staff – Jake White has won the World Cup, Gary Gold has coached at the Springboks ... Very experienced group of individuals, experienced team.

“It’s going to be tough, and we are not taking them lightly ... and giving them all the respect they deserve.

“We would be naive to think that we will get exactly the same Bulls team as before, so it will be a different challenge.

“We want to play the best brand we can play, and that’s something that we are consistently looking to improve.

“In the adversity of the tour losses, we learnt some good lessons and have been able to grind things out when we have to.

“We need to continuously find that improvement. Even when we are winning, that same energy, hunger and desperation that we felt when we came back from the tour, we need to maintain that desperation – that’s extremely important to us.”