John Dobson has entrusted players previously described as discards and journeymen with a Vodacom United Rugby Championship campaign that has brought him within one win of becoming the most successful coach in DHL Stormers history.
He has done so without the international superstars all of his predecessors enjoyed as squad members.
Dobson and his Stormers are South African rugby’s own ‘Moneyball’ story in how this squad has been assembled and performed.
The showdown against the Vodacom Bulls at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday is a rematch of the Stormers’ only other appearance in an international final after the Cape side went down 25-17 in the 2010 Super Rugby final at Orlando Stadium.
Twelve years later, the Stormers trio of Juan de Jongh, Brok Harris and Deon Fourie, and Bulls veteran Morne Steyn are the only men in contention to contest both finals.
Fourie started just one match, at hooker, in 2010 and he replaced Tiaan Liebenberg off the bench in the final. He wouldn’t have been near the stadium as a loose forward on a team that boasted the ferocious back row of Schalk Burger, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen.
The star quality didn’t stop there as Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie and Ricky Januarie armed the backline with three reigning world champions in a unit rounded off by the untouchable Gio Aplon and Springbok flyhalf Peter Grant.
But where Fourie had played a secondary role in 2010, the 35-year-old has returned from seven years in France to take his place, as a flank, in the vanguard of Dobson’s quest for European glory.
Harris (37) is another veteran in the youthful squad, back in Cape Town after 133 appearances for Dragons in Newport, while 34-year-old De Jongh rejoined the Stormers after 64 appearances for Wasps in the English Premiership.
But, perhaps, Dobson’s greatest achievement this season has been in turning duds into dynamite. In 2021, the careers of flyhalf Manie Libbok and flank Hacjivah Dyamani were waning. Libbok had been jettisoned by the Bulls and then failed to launch at the Cell C Sharks, while Dayimani seldom lived up to the hype around his explosive speed in four quiet seasons at the Emirates Lions.
There was limited fanfare when Dobson brought them to Cape Town last year, but both players have excelled at the Stormers – Libbok finished the season as the URC’s leading point-scorer while Dayimani scored two tries in 12 starts.
The two dovetail in the kicking game, a key factor of the Stormers’ success this season. The ambidextrous flyhalf lofts kicks and Dayimani uses his rare pace to meet the ball on landing.
The Stormers famously landed in the playoffs for the first time in 1999 after topping the standings under Alan Solomons, but the threat of a player strike derailed that team in the Newlands semi-final.
It took five years for the Stormers to return to the knockout rounds but Gert Smal’s team went down 27-16 against the 2004 Crusaders in Christchurch.
The Waratahs were blanked 22-0 in the 2010 semi-final at Newlands before Rassie Erasmus’ charges were denied by the Bulls, and the following season they lost 29-10 against the visiting Crusaders in the semi-finals.
Allister Coetzee’s Stormers surrendered 26-19 to a 2012 Sharks outfit that had travelled to Cape Town via beating the Reds in Brisbane, and from 2015 to 2017 the hosts lost three playoffs at Newlands against the Brumbies and Chiefs.
The list of Stormers greats is long and illustrious, and Western Province is held as one of the world’s richest reservoirs of rugby talent. Dobson’s crew is motley, and they’re set to sail into uncharted waters.