Stormers still learning how to cope with demands of Europe says Dobson

07 April 2024 - 14:21
By Stuart Hess
 Levani Botia  was one of La Rochelle's stand out performers in their 22-21 Champions Cup victory over the Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday.
Image: Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images Levani Botia was one of La Rochelle's stand out performers in their 22-21 Champions Cup victory over the Stormers in Cape Town on Saturday.

Disappointment at a one-point defeat mixed with pride at keeping it that close for the Stormers, with John Dobson saying his side were still learning how to cope with the street-smarts exhibited by Stade Rochelais’ team of galacticos. 

The winners of the last two Champions Cup competitions, needed every ounce of power and intellect to overcome a courageous Stormers group, who lost five players to injury in an intense round of the last-16 knockout tie in Cape Town. 

“To lose so many men in key positions, it was a testimony to the character of the side, they fought until the very end. One point in it ... it is going to hurt for a while, but ultimately, I’m very proud of the effort we showed,” said Stormers captain, Salmaan Moerat.

He was one of three players who failed the head injury assessment protocols. Yet with a lock — Reuben van Heerden packing down at No.8 in the last 20 minutes — and a handful of other positional changes just to keep eight forwards on the field, the Stormers came within a conversion of knocking out the glamorous French club.

“I knew once we scored we weren’t going to kick it over,” Dobson joked. “It was an impossible kick in that wind.”

Manie Libbok’s attempted conversion of Suleiman Hartzenberg’s last minute try — from virtually the same spot he successfully slotted one to win the pool match against La Rochelle in December — was blown well left of the goalposts, by the gale-force wind which had made life difficult for both sets of players. Stade Rochelais skipper Gregor Aldritt, one of their three try scorers, described it as a “nightmare”.

Besides the injuries the Stormers' director of rugby was left bemoaning a raft of penalties his side gave away in the second half, which culminated in a yellow card for replacement flanker Marcel Theunissen on the hour-mark. 

“They got the rumble on us ... they’re big boys, physically they were dominant,” said Dobson. “We let them back in at the start of the second half, which is the frustration for me.”

Dobson explained that the narrow defeat to one of club rugby’s elite teams, indicates the Stormers are still about a year behind where they want to be if they are going to challenge for the biggest prize. 

“We’ve gone toe-to-toe, with arguably the best club side in the world, finished 1-1 in a series — we can claim that — but this is a bonus. We are maybe a year or two off in terms of experience. This was a bonus, we wanted to show our supporters we are close to the top in terms of club rugby.

“They showed how street smart they are; they slowed us down at the ruck, every time you could hear the ref calling them off, but it did slow us down. We were vastly better than we were in December. If we want to progress in this tournament, then we have to get better at that.” 

The Stormers, who will regain the expertise of prop Steven Kitshoff next year, are like the other South African teams still trying to build the necessary depth which will allow them to fight on two fronts — in the Champions Cup and the URC. 

For now, the latter remains the priority, with the Stormers next match in two weeks against Welsh side Ospreys, the most critical fixture of the season so far. “There’s a massive URC season left and the guys are hungry for that,” said Dobson.