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HomeSportJohn Dobson: It’s just not cricket, but Stormers v Bulls in summer...

John Dobson: It’s just not cricket, but Stormers v Bulls in summer as mad as it is magical

John Dobson says tomorrow night’s much-anticipated United Rugby Championship showdown between the Stormers and Bulls at Cape Town Stadium (7.15pm kickoff) will be “worthy of a final”.

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The last time the teams were involved in an actual final, the Capetonians emerged 18-13 victors last June.

But the Stormers and Bulls are in different situations leading into this game compared to the title decider, and that could influence the result.

Dobson’s side had finished second on the URC log after the league phase, which secured them a home quarter-final and semi-final, while the Bulls ended fourth and had a home quarter-final, but had to travel to Dublin to take on the mighty Leinster at the RDS Arena.

Jake White’s side pulled off a remarkable 27-26 triumph, but then had to travel back to South Africa for the final against the Stormers at Cape Town Stadium.

So, Dobson’s team were certainly fresher going into that game, but the tables will be turned in that regard tomorrow night, as the Bulls’ first-choice match-23 have been rested for their last two Champions Cup games against Lyon at Loftus Versfeld and Exeter Chiefs in England.

In contrast, the Stormers have stuck with virtually the same squad over the last two weeks’ encounters against Clermont in France and London Irish in Cape Town.

And in recent games, they haven’t been able to keep up their momentum in the second half, which might be another difficult issue to overcome against the well-rested Bulls.

“This season we have started so many matches well and haven’t always been able to maintain this intensity for 80 minutes,” Dobson wrote in his ‘Dobbo’s Diary’ column on the Stormers website this week.

“It has nothing to do with conditioning and everything to do with the mix and matching of a match-23 – with the starters and finishers so often playing both roles, depending on individual playing minutes, the opposition and factoring in how we must manage the current Springboks as part of their national preparation to defend the World Cup in 2023.

“I am loving the challenge, but loving something doesn’t mean it is simply a stroll. Hell, it’s tough, but it is rewarding to see how competitive we have been in both leagues so far.

“I know we felt we let ourselves down in the second half against Clermont, but we knew how to fix the mistakes that proved costly in the second half of that 24-14 defeat.

“I was delighted with the response against London Irish. We won 34-14, by 20 points, but for small margins, it could have been a lot closer. It certainly didn’t feel like a 20-point differential match, but wow we showed character in so many ways, as a squad and individually.”

Centre Dan du Plessis is finally over the illness that sidelined him for the Clermont and Irish games, and his return should see Damian Willemse moving to fullback and Du Plessis at No 12.

That will provide a better balance to the Stormers attack, but the bigger issue the Capetonians have to overcome is playing in the heart of summer, according to Dobson.

“It really does feel strange to be preparing for our greatest north-south derby match with Christmas a few days away. This is foreign territory to us, and I am sure it is the same for Jake White and his group of players. In a few years, it will be the norm and December will be a month of summer rugby,” he said.

“This was always going to be our biggest challenge in the 2022/23 season, in how we managed players and schedules as the Champions Cup runs concurrently with the United Rugby Championship.

“In simple terms, you don’t prepare for and complete a campaign in the one league, and then prepare for and complete a campaign in the other – the campaigns run together. It is as mad as it is magical.

“I am loving it because I can already feel how much I have learned as a coach, in squad selections, in substitutions, in sending the right message to the players and supporters that we want to do well in both competitions and in marrying romance with reality.

“The players are learning much about game-time management and their own development.

“This Friday night it is an entirely different contest, in a different league and with so much difference in context. It is the Stormers versus the Bulls, and historically, it is the biggest domestic derby game in South African rugby.

“It is going to be huge, many billing it as a repeat of last season’s URC final, but the reality is it is a league match, and both sides get to have another go at each other later in the season.

“Both also have another derby, us against the Lions and the Bulls against the Sharks, a week later on the 31 December. Just writing that date seems so foreign, because we are talking rugby derbies and not cricket derbies.

“But it is exciting, and in terms of Friday night it should be a match worthy of any final because when it comes to local derbies, mentally and physically, the South African boys find another gear.

“We were victorious three times against the Bulls in last season’s league, including the final, but in all three games, the biggest winning margin was an unconverted try. That is how close it was and how tight it is in these derby matches.

“A lot was made of last season’s final being about me getting another one over Jake, but that was more media talk than anything that has ever motivated me as a coach.

“Jake has won a World Cup, a Tri-Nations, titles in Europe, Japan and South Africa, and is among the best in the business. Hell, to get a win against a team he coaches would make any coach feel good. Would I want to be in the winning change room on Friday night as a coach? For sure!

“But win, lose or draw, I’d also want to be sharing a drink afterwards with Jake, as would our players with the Bulls. And by drink, I don’t necessarily mean alcohol as so many in both squads don’t drink alcohol.

“It is about the camaraderie, the bonding that comes with the game and the privilege of being involved in a game as big as Friday’s.”


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