To start or not to start? That is the Stormers’ Manie Libbok question

FILE - Rugby World Cup winner Manie Libbok will be available for the Stormers in this weekend’s URC game against Zebre. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

FILE - Rugby World Cup winner Manie Libbok will be available for the Stormers in this weekend’s URC game against Zebre. Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackpagePix

Published Nov 29, 2023


What do you do if you get four World Cup-winning Springboks back, but they haven’t played for more than a month?

That is the welcome dilemma facing Stormers coach John Dobson ahead of Saturday’s United Rugby Championship encounter against Zebre in Stellenbosch. Kick-off is at 7.15pm.

After a tough four-week European tour, where they lost to Glasgow, Benetton, Munster and Cardiff, you wouldn’t blame Dobson if he decided to start all of Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse, Deon Fourie and Frans Malherbe this weekend.

While the Stormers proved over the past few seasons that they can recover from a slow start to make the URC final, there is the Champions Cup to weigh up as well.

There are two massive clashes in that tournament after the Zebre game, against Leicester in England on December 10, and defending champions La Rochelle at Cape Town Stadium a week later.

The long December doesn’t end there for Dobson, as Jake White’s Bulls will run out in the Mother City on December 23, before the Springbok-laden Sharks come to town on December 30.

Dobson confirmed that the four World Cup Boks are available for selection against Zebre, as well as Evan Roos, Hacjivah Dayimani, Ben-Jason Dixon, Leolin Zas, JJ Kotze, Sazi Sandi and Suleiman Hartzenberg.

That’s some serious firepower, and it will hopefully see the Stormers regain some confidence against Zebre before the trip to Handré Pollard’s Leicester.

“I probably just dodged a bullet on the hardest conversation of them all, which is when Dan (du Plessis, who is set to face the Sharks) is fit and they’re all fit ... It’s hopefully coming at some stage,” Dobson said yesterday.

“But (it’s) a balancing act at loose forward ... For the Cardiff game, we had 24 guys at training, and Paul de Wet was there as an extra, with Ali (Vermaak) 25.

“Now we are in a different space, and at the right time in December. A home game in the URC is non-negotiable, two Champions Cup games and the two local derbies. So, it’s a big five weeks for us.

“We’ve got to be careful, especially from a game-time point of view, given that they’ve been off and – by all accounts – relaxing pretty hard for a while.

“It’s all about you not pushing Manie Libbok for 80 minutes. Is 20 off the bench better? Or you let him start and you control when you sub him?

“I think they do need to get some rust off ... maybe not all of them, but certainly Manie and Damian will need to get some rust off. We just have to manage them. I don’t think they can go from nought to 80 minutes, so we need to be clever with our selection.

“But I’m not going to keep them in cotton wool and then throw them into a Leicester away or La Rochelle away – I don’t think that’s fair. They need a home game to get back into proper rugby.”

The 31-24 loss to Cardiff would have hurt the Capetonians, especially as they led 14-0 early in the first half.

Dobson will hope that his team can play to their true potential and find some form against Zebre on Saturday.

“We under-delivered on tour, so it’s really important for us to start getting some momentum in this competition. We certainly lost it and faltered,” the Stormers boss said.

“Five out of our six games have been away, so that makes the home games even more important.

“We are going to have to fight now. We wanted to win two games on tour, but we didn’t do that. We’ve looked at why we didn’t, and we had a really good exercise this morning and this afternoon.

“The average defeat in the four games was seven points, which means that you’re in the game. I don’t think we ever felt like we got beaten – it was just more our own sort of stuff.

“We’ve got to prevent ourselves from beating ourselves ... We feel that games we had targeted, in Benetton and Cardiff, we were in the lead and let it slip. So, we rather needed to talk about us rather than the enemy over the hill.”

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