Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse can save Stormers, but will John Dobson make tough calls?

Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok of the Stormers during the Stormers training session he ld at the Cape Town Stadium in Cape Town

Stormers coach John Dobson will hope his returning Springboks like Manie Libbok (right) and Damian Willemse (left) will change their fortunes in the United Rugby Championship. Picture: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

Published Nov 27, 2023


Will Manie Libbok and Damian Willemse be the panacea to the Stormers’ ills?

Coach John Dobson will hope so, because on the evidence of their tour of Europe, the Capetonians desperately need their World Cup-winning Springboks to help them rediscover their mojo.

Before that happens, though, Dobson needs to consider whether he will take immediate action against some players who have repeatedly let the team down this season, or whether he will give them a stay of execution ... for now.

The only thing good about the Stormers at the moment is their scrum – and the fact that they are back home from a forgettable four weeks up north, which ended with a comical 31-24 loss to Cardiff in Wales on Friday.

No time to waste

They need to get their plans in place quickly, and at least it is ‘just’ Zebre up next in Stellenbosch on Saturday (7.15pm kick-off) – although stranger things have happened in this season’s United Rugby Championship.

Zebre were thrashed 61-19 by the Lions at Ellis Park at the weekend, but did beat the Sharks 12-10 in Parma a few weeks ago, and will feel more at home at the coast than in Johannesburg.

The Stormers pack again did the hard yards at Cardiff Arms Park, only for all that front-foot possession to be wasted on attack.

From being 14-0 up in the first quarter, the Stormers made mistake after mistake to eventually allow Cardiff to level at 24-24, and then a series of errors from replacement fullback Warrick Gelant and then Clayton Blommetjies resulted in the hosts scoring an injury-time winning try.

Dobson actually felt that the counter-attack plan itself wasn’t the issue, but rather the execution of it.

“I think our counter-attack structure is fine. I really don’t want to personalise it, but once we punched into the line, we tried to force something – and that is the disappointing bit,” he said.

“Look, we scored a good try with that to make it 24-14, which was going to take us away, and then we messed up the restart. We got no return on it through some pretty careless handling.

“I think as a collective we haven’t done ourselves any favours on tour. The competition expects more of us, and I don’t think the players or staff are feeling good about themselves.

“It has been a poor tour for us, and as Brokkie (Harris, the captain on the night) just said in the changeroom, all in that change-room need to go and have a bit of a look at ourselves and what we could’ve done better, right the way through.”

Libbok in for Du Plessis?

You would imagine that Libbok will replace Jean-Luc du Plessis in the No 10 jersey and Willemse should come in for Blommetjies at fullback – and the two Boks operating in tandem with classy former Junior Springbok captain Sacha Feinberg Mngomezulu could result in some spectacular rugby.

But should Gelant and Blommetjies even be on the bench against Zebre?

Dobson did point out that Gelant’s superb dummy and offload created a try for Ruhan Nel ... Considering that the Stormers will face Leicester in England in the Champions Cup on December 10, defending champions La Rochelle in Cape Town a week later and then the Bulls – also at home – on December 23, an argument could be made that you need all your big-name players on the pitch.

But sometimes there needs to be consequences for unforced errors, and dropping some players who have performed poorly would be the correct move at this stage.

Dobson will also hope that some of his regular starters such as Joseph Dweba, Evan Roos, Ben-Jason Dixon and Angelo Davids will be ready for Zebre.

But another disappointing aspect of their Cardiff display was their usually impregnable defence, which needs to be sorted out this week.

“It’s our worst defensive performance. They got around us ... We didn’t work hard enough in the first half with two of those tries,” Dobson said.

“We do pride ourselves on our defence, and I think Normy (defence coach Norman Laker) is hurting because it wasn’t our best defensive performance by any stretch.

“We gave too much yards, probably didn’t fold enough. We gave them space on the outside as well.

“Other than the scrums – and I thought Ruben van Heerden had a fantastic game himself, and ran a fantastic line-out, which is an important part of our growth ...

“Other than the set-pieces, it was a really poor performance in defence, attack, contestable game, kicking game. Everywhere else, we got beaten.”