John Dobson has warned that status will count for nought when the DHL Stormers blow into Johannesburg on Saturday to hunt down an Emirates Lions team primed to drag the reigning Vodacom URC SA Shield champions to “dark places”.
South Africa’s flag bearers in both of the past two seasons, the DHL Stormers, clinched the 2021-22 Vodacom United Rugby Championship title and fell one win short of backing it up in 2022-23 as Munster upset the hosts in the Cape Town final.
No fewer than 15 points separated the DHL Stormers from their closest SA rival, the Vodacom Bulls, last season, as Dobson’s team went unbeaten in local derbies.
However, a new season brings with it new challenges and the DHL Stormers begin their third campaign with a perilous trip to the Lions Den, the historic ground of Emirates Airline Park.
“Going up to the Highveld in week one is about as tough as we can have, and we’re very aware that this season is not going to be anything like the ride we had last year,” said the DHL Stormers coach.
The “City of Gold” poses a unique obstacle that cannot be underestimated – built on the eastern plateau of South Africa’s Highveld at an altitude of 1750 metres, Johannesburg’s low oxygen levels pose a serious challenge to the lungs of visiting players not acclimatised to the city’s thin air.
The Emirates Lions may be SA’s perennial underdogs, but they play with an insatiable hunger at home, running opponents off their feet to exploit the Highveld factor.
“The Emirates Lions have been very tough at home,” said Dobson. “They’ve tended to start competitions well.
“They’ll have a lot of energy after pre-season and will back themselves to get away from us at the end of the game, given the altitude and the importance they’ve placed on their conditioning, so we’re going to have to show some character.”
Last season saw the Emirates Lions make a terrific start, winning four of their opening six matches, including a three-win streak on the road against Ospreys, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
It is this kind of form that prompted Dobson to prime his charges for what to expect from the Vodacom URC’s wildcats.
“They are a team that uses the conditions and the environment to their advantage, and they rely on teams to fade away in minutes 60 to 80 at Emirates Airline Park. This is when we’ve got to show our character.”
Adding to the DHL Stormers’ challenge is that they are without a quartet of stars on Springbok duty at the World Cup – namely Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse, Deon Fourie and Frans Malherbe.
In contrast, the Emirates Lions are at full strength, none of their players having been called up to the national squad, and they are consequently in a position to maximise their continuity.
Dobson is wary of the challenge but believes there’s an inherent opportunity for growth.
“We may not be at what people regard as full strength, through a couple of injuries and some guys in France, but we see this as a helluva opportunity for some young players and new players to experience this.
“If you want to retain the SA Shield, you’re going to have to go to some dark places against SA opposition, and that’s what we’re faced with this week.”
Photo: Gordon Arons/Gallo Images