As they begin their new season, we look back at the absurd heroics of the Stormers winning the URC while in administration
As the Stormers kick off the defence of their United Rugby Championship title, there will be marauding stuff; counters and passes out of contact. But should there be even a splinter of a second to pause and think, will anyone consider just how mad it is that they are the champs?
You should. But let’s examine why.
“It was very unsettling,” says Stormers head coach John Dobson of pre-season, last year. The outfit were beleaguered, unfancied, in a financial hole dug deep and wide by the Western Province union itself. Plans to sell their iconic Newlands home became so bamboozling, Derren Brown would struggle to do a stage show about it.
“My job was to sort of buffer the players from it, obviously, but I got a call at some stage just before the tournament started to say we might be replaced by the Cheetahs, of Bloemfontein, because of (impending) administration.
“And then I got a call just before the Treviso game to say that we’d gone into administration. There was incredible uncertainty and the truth is we’d been on the front page of the papers for so long over the last two years. For all the negativity and the money and with the politics.
“We were down and out. The thing that probably saved us was the fact that there was the URC. I could sell the guys once I knew we were gonna participate – which wasn’t long before the competition – as there was something to get excited about.
“All rugby clubs in the world had to come out of Covid, which was massive. And then all the South African teams joined this new competition we didn’t know anything about. But for us there were two other things. We’ve lost our beloved Newlands, which was very much the spiritual home of rugby in Cape Town. And secondly, we went into administration. Those are pretty seismic things. But it all came together which was quite bewildering to us.”
Seismic. Bewildering. Administration.
These were migraine-inducing issues. And yet this team came out on top last season. There’s upturning odds and there’s whacking them in the tumble dryer.
So how bad did things get? Dobson tells Rugby World: “We never missed a wage run. There were a couple of times they were late… But we lost Bongi Mbonambi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Damian de Allende. From our last Super Rugby game to our first URC game, we lost 28 players. Those were some world class players.
“One bad thing was our resources. You want to know about the start, but there was one URC tour where we ate four McDonald’s in a row as our meals. There were two games when we couldn’t travel with more players, we ended up with 22-men squads because someone got sick or hurt in the warm-up.
“But it wasn’t just resources before, but every week we were on the front pages. I think there were four or five court cases going on inside Western Province at the same time, people suspended, there was no Chief Executive Officer, no director of rugby, sponsors threatening to withdraw. So it was a barrage every week.
“It was something that obviously affected the players. The consortium who bought the Sharks, when they fell through (initially going for the Stormers), that’s when Siya Kolisi decided he can’t be here anymore. So that was probably our darkest moment. It wasn’t like we were on the streets, but our morale was rock bottom.”
There are also tales of Dobson – a man totally in sync with the vibe of the Western Cape – digging into his funds to pay for tape or more. He laughs: “If my wife knew how much I went into my own pocket during the last campaign… But the SA Rugby intervention was a massive thing. The first job, if you think about anybody going into liquidation or administration, is to stop haemorrhaging cash. And then sell the stadium, find an equity deal, then look at the agreement for Green Point (Cape Town Stadium). But before that it was hand to mouth.”
Dobson mentions SARU intervention. As you can read from Jon Cardinelli’s breakdown of the Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU) shambles for businesslive.co.za, there was a laundry list of complaints over how former president Zelt Marais had mismanaged the business. And right now, the Western Province have no CEO. SA rugby appointed former chief exec Rian Oberholzer as an administrator. A job was on to just… get by.
On the need to step in, SARU president Mark Alexander tells Rugby World: “Unfortunately, there were a couple of areas where they (Western Province) encumbered all their properties in a bad deal and we had to step in to unbundle that deal. And then there were international partners that had shown interest in Western Province, some of them that partners in other rugby teams in Europe in particular. You cannot deliver a sport without having private equity partners. You need to have people that can take the organisation from A to Z – and not just with a cash injection but they must have a vision.”
We get to the issue of Newlands. The grand old rugby theatre hadn’t been upgraded since 1985, and the cost to do so would be astronomical. The damage of being beside a railway line over prolonged time is damaging and it would cost around R350m just to reinforce the concrete, the president tells us.
But there’s the issue of where ‘home’ is now, too.
“We will redo the contract of the stadium,” Alexander says of Cape Town Stadium, the city-owned ground at Green Point, where the Stormers currently play. “We just want to make sure the contract is equitable for all parties. We don’t want to do in the city. And I don’t think the city want to do us in, so we are renegotiating and we’ve got a team of people managing the Western Province scenario. And we should reach the stage of handing the union back.
“We’re not in the business of running our member (unions), but we must also make sure that we protect our assets. We’ve got a huge base of players of national interest here. If this union collapses, we lose a huge asset and it will take a long time for them to regroup.
“So we step in to unions – look at the Border union. We’ve just handed over Border; we turned it around. Put the right structures in place, all the controls in place, so the organisation can be run properly.”
Alexander says the equity partners they are currently talking to “look beyond” a simple cash injection. The president sees organisations like Leinster and Munster and wonders, could unions in South Africa ever work more like those? It is a unique landscape in Western Province, with a network of some 90 clubs to get onside too.
Of course, private equity partners will only come in when there is a guaranteed home to play at. So the renegotiating for use of Cape Town Stadium will have to be concluded, then it’s equity time. As Alexander adds: “We also have to make sure that they adopt a new constitution. To build all the governance in so that when the organisation goes forward, they have a toolkit to make sure they run better and can be self sustainable.”
That’s the backdrop of what it was like at the time. And talk to anyone involved with the Stormers and they will eventually tell you what a relief it was for rugby people to simply get stuck into the rugby. Dobson clearly felt relief.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a brilliant coach, but suddenly I wasn’t being called off or missing training,” he says. “We could focus on the rugby. SA Rugby gave us a massive sense of security with that administration. Now we suddenly disappeared off the front pages as well which was brilliant.”
But there must also have been a mental circling of the wagons too, with times so tough. As Dobson explains, the side drew inspiration from a figure of myth, who was cursed by Zeus to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity.
“We used this Greek theme of Sisyphus and the Absurd Heroes. It was a galvanising thing. We could do that, say ‘Look, nobody’s given us a chance.’ I’ll be honest with you, we did use that as a sort of ‘us against the world’ sort of thing.
“We literally used the Absurd Heroes thing the whole way, right up until up until the final. In the final we had a lineout on 77 minutes, and all we had to do is maul it for 45 seconds and then either get the penalty or maybe box kick it. And Warrick Gelant, our full-back takes a quick throw.
“It became almost a sense of pride that we weren’t going to be defined by what people expected from us. And we did become a good team – I mean, not a typical URC team! We did get quite lucky in one or two games, but the best performance all year was the Bulls beating Leinster and that opened the door for us. I couldn’t see that team going to Dublin and beating Leinster, so it was a huge thing for us.”
There is another element of the Stormers’ play that feels very Cape Town. There’s an expectation of teams in that part of the world, and rugby people from the Western Cape will happily chat about, well, rugby in the Western Cape. For those unfamiliar, it might be a case of murdering any assumptions you have about ‘South African rugby’ as one homogenous thing.
Dobson says: “The DNA of this region is of attractive running rugby. People in the Western Cape want to see spectacular tries and offloads. You can’t, as a coach, change the DNA of the region. Some people have tried…
“On the week of the final we crashed the ticket website because of the demand. So we have that connection with the people of Cape Town, they want to see that type of rugby. How we played was probably more important to them in some ways than the results. You’d have seen that in some of the tries we scored. And we were lucky that we stumbled upon a game plan which was very un-URC-like, but that suited this counter attack, transition-based game.
“We don’t play lots of phases, like an Ireland or a Glasgow or something like that. We’re actually poor at multi-phase rugby in South Africa. Even at a national level we tend to kick it and our defences are really good.
“So then we just saw this opportunity, with these northern hemisphere teams having such a phase-based approach, we thought if we could get them to kick it or turn the ball over, the best thing was for us to attack off that. And we actually did get more and more innovative, our whole game (became about) them kicking to us or exit cycles we could attack from or creating chaos.
“it was something we stumbled on and then we worked really hard on it.”
It was all about learning, too.
Dobson gives the example of playing a “fully-loaded” Munster in the second round of the season, just after losing to Benetton in game one. And having perhaps written themselves off before the game, they went out and played pressure-off rugby and threw it about. They led the entire first half, styling it out. Sure they eventually got ground down, losing 34-18, but it showed them the way to play.
The other day that taught them a lot was their 23-20 win over Ulster in late March – a game darkened by an extraordinary TMO call to chop off a late Ulster try that has Dobson admitting “we burgled that one!” But what else stuck with the Stormer was how John Cooney trapped them in the corner with contestable kicks.
The Stormers could not get out of their kick-created constraints and after that afternoon, they got to work on how they could attack from contestable kicks and also how to avoid the quicksand. It helped them immeasurable later in the season, Dobson admits.
In the URC final, at home, the Stormers took the title form their storied rivals, the Bulls. It was the Capetonians’ 11th win in a row in the ecompetition. This from a side who had never won a Super Rugby title. Bewildering, indeed.
So what does the future hold, we ask Dobson, on and off the park.
“We’re still under administration,” the head coach says. “I think SA Rugby are going to do us a great equity deal which could see us become reasonably well off. But those deals take a while and in terms of travelling parties (of players), that’s still a big issue. The URC only pay for a certain amount and if you’re going on the Rand, it’s tough. It’s tough to eat!
“So those challenges remain. And we’re possibly victims of our own success. We couldn’t keep Warrick Gelant, our 15 who a lot was built around, with our counter-attacking game. We also lost a really good centre (Rikus Pretorius). And then we went from having four or five Springboks to having nine or ten, just by virtue of success.
“We play these games now, we are without up to nine Springboks. That’s a lot of our budget. To go up against a fully-loaded Edinburgh, for example, that’s going to be tough.
“With regards to how we want to play, we’ll have to try and become better because we don’t think teams will be as generous to us through turning the ball over to us or kicking at a distance to us. We’re gonna have to try and find better ways to create good transitions. We’ve been chasing extraordinary numbers in training. When you see us run out for the first game, we won’t be as big as the Bulls or the Sharks, but we are looking at the high (number of) movements.”
As Alexander tells us, when everything is in place and running smoothly, “they should be the best team in South Africa, possibly the world.” Because of the talent in the region.
However, last season the Stormers found themselves fighting simply for a shot, and blasted their way to a miracle.
Yet as the South African sides now enter the Champions Cup, and resources are stretched further, the heroics needed get even more absurd for the Stormers.
It shows you just how brilliantly bananas the inaugural URC season was too.
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