Stormers up for eighth win on the trot over the Bulls

NEETHLING Fouche during the Stormers training session. | BackpagePix

NEETHLING Fouche during the Stormers training session. | BackpagePix

Published Mar 2, 2024


WHEN the Stormers step onto the field for their warmup ahead of their North vs South derby against the Bulls this afternoon, head coach John Dobson wants them to embrace the moment, breathe in the atmosphere, and find the Stormers supporters in the crowd to know they will not take the Bulls on alone at a packed Loftus Versfeld.

The arch-rivals clash in the penultimate round of local derbies in Pretoria (kick-off 5.05pm) with the Cape side holding the advantage over their opponents, having won the last seven United Rugby Championship (URC) games between them.

But the Bulls are the top South African side on the overall points table, holding on to third place, and will look to pull clear of the Stormers in front of an expected sold-out stadium.

The inaugural URC champions brought back their Springboks Manie Libbok (flyhalf), centre Damian Willemse, and captain-flanker Deon Fourie for the big one. Tighthead prop Frans Malherbe was in the running, but they didn’t want to rush him back in such a massive encounter.

Fourie explained yesterday they could’ve risked Malherbe because he is fit to play, but the question would’ve been if he could last at altitude in case he needs to play for longer than planned.

“His game fitness isn’t up there after not playing for four months, he felt. He was ready to play,” said Fourie about his fellow World Cup winner.

“The first game up in the Highveld, he didn’t want to drop the team. He felt his fitness isn’t up to that par at the moment. It shows the quality of Frans, the team guy he is. That he can say that and put faith in the guys who were selected.”

Dobson said the decision was in the interest of Malherbe, but at Loftus in a first game back and if Neethling Fouché goes down in the third minute, not many props after that lengthy lay-off will be ready for it.

The coach is happy, though, to give guys like replacement tighthead prop Sazi Sandi and promising utility back Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu a run to keep building capacity for later in the season.

According to Fourie, the first 20 minutes of the derby will be vital. They are looking for an eighth win on the trot over the Bulls and to keep their unbeaten record over South African sides this season intact. If the Stormers are victorious, they will also secure the South African Shield of the URC for a record third time.

“It’s always tough, helter-skelter with a lot of emotions and big crowds where the pressure is building. That first contact to get into the game. The team handling the first 20 to 30 minutes the best and getting into their rhythm, will have a good game.”

Dobson agreed with his captain about being sharp in the first quarter and warned they could not take their foot off the pedal once they had overcome their altitude deficit.

“When that altitude gets you a little bit here in minute 12, you can’t let them get on top of you then. That’s going to require some sacrifice. If we get through that, we should be golden.

“We are looking forward to this occasion, and I think we are well prepared.”

Willemse will combine with outside centre Dan du Plessis, while Libbok and Herschel Jantjies partner up as halfbacks. Fourie and loosehead prop Sti Sithole are the only changes to the forward pack that beat the Sharks a couple of weeks ago.

The Stormers opted for a six-two replacement bench split to keep their engine running deep into the red should it be needed at altitude.

Stormers XV: 15. Warrick Gelant, 14. Ben Loader, 13. Dan du Plessis, 12. Damian Willemse, 11. Leolin Zas, 10. Manie Libbok, 9. Herschel Jantjies, 8. Hacjivah Dayimani, 7. Evan Roos, 6. Deon Fourie (captain), 5. Ruben van Heerden, 4. Adre Smith, 3. Neethling Fouché, 2. Joseph Dweba, 1. Sti Sithole.

Replacements: 16. André-Hugo Venter, 17. Brok Harris, 18. Sazi Sandi, 19. Salmaan Moerat, 20. Ben-Jason Dixon, 21. Marcel Theunissen, 22. Paul de Wet, 23. Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu.