Cape Town – After a long day and night that ended with a terrible defeat, the last thing Stormers coach John Dobson would have wanted to do was answer questions from South African media late into the night in a chilly Belfast.
He had just watched his already-weakened team become further depleted with several more injuries on what was a freakish Friday that began with Clayton Blommetjies and Junior Pokomela having to withdraw, and ended with a serious Evan Roos injury and a 35-5 United Rugby Championship loss to Ulster at Kingspan Stadium.
Dobson doesn’t hide nor makes excuses when his team have been beaten, but if ever a rugby coach could say that there were things beyond his control that caused such a heavy defeat, it was this game.
With a number of top players not making the trip to Northern Ireland due to rotation, and others such as Springboks Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and Damian Willemse on a pre-determined break, the Stormers were up against it even before they left Cape Town.
Dobson then had to pick a third flyhalf in Kade Wolhuter in the starting line-up, at fullback, and went on to lose hooker JJ Kotze in the fourth minute after he collided with lock Ben-Jason Dixon in a tackle, which saw Scarra Ntubeni coming on for his first game since April 2022.
In the 14th minute, star No 8 Roos sustained a knee ligament injury – after he was cleaned-out by Bok veteran Duane Vermeulen and Ulster flank Nick Timoney – that Dobson fears could rule him out for the rest of the Stormers season, while he hoped it wouldn’t affect his Bok World Cup prospects.
Roos soldiered on for about nine more minutes, but was replaced by Ruben van Heerden, which meant that Dixon had to go to flank and Willie Engelbrecht to No 8.
The misfortune didn’t end there, as flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis went off with concussion, so Wolhuter and No 12 Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu flitted between No 10 and No 15, with Juan de Jongh at inside centre.
The Stormers had lost all shape and structure, so the large margin of defeat wasn’t a surprise. Just to add to Dobson’s frustration, he had to do the Zoom call with the SA media in the small referee’s room.
“Sorry about that – it was a very, very odd game of rugby,” was what the Stormers boss concluded the session with after trying to explain the “extraordinary” circumstances that combined to stop any thoughts of victory.
“We made some defensive errors as well, and they caught us with the moves off the lineout a little bit. We were just patchy – our back-field was poor with (dealing with) their kick-space…
“But they were very good with their rush defence, and it just felt like we didn’t have any of the options we normally have – thanks to their rush and our situation.
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“At the start of the season, we thought that this is going to be a very hard game, given our history. We were probably going to send a (weakened) team.
“But I must say that I thought we had enough depth to do better than we did – I thought we could’ve done something special. But I can’t blame the disruptions… Ulster were good.
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“I certainly wasn’t harsh on the team after the game because of the disruptions. In the end, they were knocking on Ulster’s door a few times, so that was probably the one positive out of today.”
Now it’s on to Durban to take on the Sharks next Saturday (2pm kickoff), and Dobson could at least take solace in the fact that he can call on a number of big guns at Kings Park, including Deon Fourie, Hacjivah Dayimani, Manie Libbok, Dan du Plessis and Seabelo Senatla, who has recovered from a long-term shoulder and pectoral injury.