Stormers in a ‘chicken-egg’ situation for La Rochelle Champions Cup showdown

Stormers star Damian Willemse, seen here against Steven Kitshoff’s Ulster, could shift to fullback from centre against La Rochelle. Picture: PHANDO JIKELO

Stormers star Damian Willemse, seen here against Steven Kitshoff’s Ulster, could shift to fullback from centre against La Rochelle. Picture: PHANDO JIKELO

Published Apr 2, 2024


Do you select a side to stop La Rochelle from gaining the ascendancy, or pick a side to run them off their feet from the get-go?

That is the conundrum Stormers director of rugby John Dobson and his fellow coaches sit with as they make plans to unsettle the reigning Champions Cup holders in the battle for a place in the quarter-finals.

After playing each other during the group stages in December, where the Stormers came out on top, the French giants will again head to the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday (4pm kick-off) looking for revenge, knowing they could lose their title if they fail to beat the home side.

The Stormers scrum could not ask for better preparation than facing their former captain Steven Kitshoff, and both Neethling Fouché and Frans Malherbe held their own and even shoved the Springbok loosehead prop back a couple of times in their 13-7 United Rugby Championship victory over Ulster at the weekend.

On the loosehead side, 39-year-old Brok Harris also had a stellar performance, while his replacement, the 25-year-old Leon Lyons, showed that Dobson can put faith in him to hold his own against more experienced scrummagers.

This week, La Rochelle will rock up with a strong pack of forwards, including monster French tighthead Uini Atonio, giant Wallaby lock Will Skelton, fiery Fijian flank Levani Botia and star France No 8 Gregory Alldritt.

So, who starts in the front row – along with the balance of his loose trio – will be key for Dobson.

At the back, the midfield partnership will be crucial to get right, and how they accommodate the talented Warrick Gelant and Damian Willemse, while shifting Dan du Plessis back to his preferred inside centre position.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Dobson said of finding the right balance in the team.

“We have to analyse how the centre combination worked, the loose forwards. Only one of the big tightheads can start, but they will be happy with how things went.

“But the selection is a problem, fitting all those guys in.

“It’s a chicken-egg situation where you have to decide do you pick your physical guys to stop La Rochelle, or do you think we are going to break them open with our X-factor, which might require something else?

“It’s a tricky one for what will be a great occasion. I would suggest they (La Rochelle) would be in the top 10 rankings in World Rugby rankings, and are better than some Test-playing nations.”

The Stormers still have a couple of areas to sharpen up on this week, with the finishing of opportunities and play at the breakdown arguably the biggest.

They threatened the Ulster try line a handful of times on Saturday, but could only score a single try, which came off the back of a powerful maul.

But the missed opportunities remain a concern. It happened against the Bulls at Loftus, and two weeks ago in Cape Town against Edinburgh, where they could have run in even more than the seven tries they ended up scoring.

“It was frustrating that we (again) left so many tries out there,” Dobson said of the missed chances.

He will hope it’s an issue of the past.

Last time out against La Rochelle, it was a 21-20 victory to the home side, and although the Stormers won’t mind winning by the smallest of margins, they can make it easier on themselves by using the opportunities presented to put the game to bed.