• Preview: Stormers power up for 2020

    The Stormers could be in trouble if they don’t make home-ground advantage count in the early rounds, writes JON CARDINELLI in his SA Rugby magazine preview of the Stormers.

    The Stormers haven’t been in a position to compete for the Super Rugby title for some time. While they are perennially hyped by some sectors of the Cape media, the financial issues afflicting the union have hampered the team’s ability to retain and recruit top talent – be it coaches or players. With this in mind, the disappointing results recorded in recent years have not come as much of a surprise.

    The Stormers finished their 2019 campaign at the bottom of the South African conference. While there was a lot of talk in the pre-season about a bold attacking approach, they ended the conference phase with the joint-worst try-scoring record. Robbie Fleck’s men scored 34 tries – 12 fewer than they did in 2018 – and claimed just one try-scoring bonus point in 16 matches.

    The Cape side has lost some senior Boks in the wake of the World Cup.

    Those they have retained will be managed carefully in the early stages of the 2020 tournament – which will begin earlier than in previous seasons. The absence of several experienced heads won’t help a team that’s under a lot of pressure, despite the appointment of a new coach in John Dobson and talk of a new era.

    The Stormers will play seven of their first 10 matches at home, with all but one of those 10 games taking place in South Africa. While the Stormers have struggled away from home in recent seasons, they have performed well at Newlands. In that sense the draw must be viewed as a positive.

    On the other hand, they could be in trouble if they don’t make home-ground advantage count in the early rounds. They lost three of their four games in Australasia in 2019. They won’t want to leave themselves with too much to do when they visit the Chiefs, Crusaders, Brumbies and Sunwolves towards the end of their 2020 campaign.

    While there’s good reason to be wary of the Australasian teams, the Stormers will have something to prove when they meet the Sunwolves, having lost the previous fixture staged on Asian soil in 2018. It will be interesting to see whether a full-strength side is picked for the game in Tokyo, and how many of the first-choice players are still left standing at that stage of the competition.

    In the past, the Stormers have been criticised for their poor composure and inability to fire in the big matches. Since the inception of the Super Rugby tournament, the Cape side have lost seven of the eight playoff games in which they have featured. Over the past seven years, however, the Stormers have failed to qualify for the knockouts on four occasions.

    They will undergo another period of transition in 2020. The Bulls and Lions will also be weakened by the Bok exodus after the World Cup and this may help the Cape side’s cause as far as qualifying for the playoffs is concerned. It would come as a great surprise, though, if they managed to topple the better Australasian teams and advanced to the final.

    FORWARD TO WATCH

    Pieter-Steph du Toit has gone from strength to strength since shifting from lock to flank. The 27-year-old was the standout player at the 2019 World Cup and subsequently acknowledged with the World Rugby Player of the Year award. Unsurprisingly, his peers voted him their Player of the Year. Du Toit is one of the few big-name players who have decided to remain in South Africa after the World Cup. The Stormers will benefit from his leadership and athleticism in the big matches. How they manage such an important player in a long tournament will be a point of debate.

    BACK TO WATCH

    Herschel Jantjies scored a last-gasp try for the Stormers against the Lions in round two of last year’s tournament. From there, he was backed to start regularly for the Cape side and certainly made an impression in a series of potent attacking performances. Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus brought the rookie into the squad before the Rugby Championship and picked the 23-year-old to start against the Wallabies in the opening match. Jantjies scored two tries in that fixture and then came off the bench in the subsequent clash with New Zealand to steal a five-pointer that led to a draw. Erasmus didn’t hesitate to include the youngster in his World Cup squad. At the end of 2019, Jantjies was nominated for World Rugby’s Breakthrough of the Year accolade. At the WP Rugby awards evening, he was named Back of the Year and the Players’ Player of the Year.

    BIG SIGNING 

    By the beginning of January 2020 the Stormers had not made any significant signings. (Ed’s note: Jamie Roberts has arrived as a high-profile addition.)

    BIG LOSS

    Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth opted to further his career at Toulon in France. 

    COACH 

    John Dobson was confirmed as Robbie Fleck’s successor midway through the 2019 campaign. While he boasts plenty of experience as an assistant coach with the Stormers, and steered Western Province to a Currie Cup title in 2017, the 2020 season will mark his first as a head coach of a Super Rugby franchise. His ability to manage upwards and combat the volatile Stormers board will be crucial to the team’s success. He has the backing of the players and it will be interesting to see if he can implement an effective gameplan and guide the side into the playoffs.

    FIXTURES

    1 February

    Hurricanes (h)

    8 February

    Bulls (h)

    15 February

    Lions (a)

    22 February

    Jaguares (h)

    29 February

    Blues (h)

    Round 6

    Bye

    14 March

    Sharks (a)

    22 March

    Jaguares (a)

    28 March

    Rebels (h)

    4 April

    Waratahs (h)

    Round 11

    Bye

    18 April

    Sharks (h)

    25 April

    Chiefs (a)

    2 May

    Crusaders (a)

    9 May

    Brumbies (a)

    16 May

    Sunwolves (a)

    23 May

    Lions (h)