WP Rugby and by extension the Stormers are, I believe, the biggest losers in many respects from the nail-biting “transfer window” over South African professional rugby players that ended at midnight on Thursday … even if it is really just the continuation of a scarily well-developed trend at Newlands.
While some termination-of-service aftershocks remained possible countrywide into to the weekend, two traditionally fiercest major franchise rivals – the Sharks and Bulls – appeared to come through the bruising, demoralising process largely unscathed.
At Loftus, in fact, the primary feature was more of a staffing-up one, swelling a process that began with Jake White’s high-profile installation as director of rugby in late March.
While utility back Johnny Kotze has left Pretoria, inbound personnel include heavyweight Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen, who had last represented the Bulls in Super Rugby 2019, and other internationals in veteran fullback Gio Aplon, broad-shouldered tighthead prop Marcel van der Merwe and (finally confirmed on Friday) dynamic loose forward Arno Botha.
The 28-year-old Botha is an old Loftus favourite, who had burst onto the Test scene with aplomb in 2013 before being plagued by injuries; he seems to have successfully wrestled off that demon more recently.
At the time of writing, they were also strongly linked with two Cheetahs second-rowers, Sintu Manjezi and Walt Steenkamp, as well as seeking a return of brawny front lock and one-cap Bok Jason Jenkins.
The Bulls’ resurgent ambition and strengthening drive ties in so clearly with the gradual righting of their ship financially, thanks in no small measure to the investment into their cause late last year of high-profile tycoons Johann Rupert and Patrice Motsepe.
Meanwhile the Sharks sidestepped any significant derailing of their striking 2020 on-field progress – top of the overall Super Rugby table before the coronavirus pandemic so cruelly intruded – to leave enough optimism at Kings Park and environs that their revival quest is for real, and sustainable.
It appeared on Friday that the only sacrifices from their starting team, for example, that began the victorious last match – a derby against the Stormers on 14 March – are blindside flank and sometimes lock Tyler Paul (to the Japanese fold) and muscular midfielder Andre Esterhuizen, an expensive, already-known purchase by Harlequins.
That still gives head coach Sean Everitt the comfort of knowing that he retains, at least for the short to medium term, the overwhelmingly nucleus of the figures who have led the hungry 2020 charge – and snapping up Manie Libbok from the Bulls, a player possibly miffed at not getting a fair shake in Pretoria, is a smart bit of business for depth-building purposes.
“I think it’s the fruit of our system and the way we treat players; if the players were not happy they would have left,” Sharks CEO Eduard Coetzee had told Sport24 colleague Lloyd Burnard.
The Motsepe/Rupert millions in Pretoria, the harmony between dressing room and administration in Durban … can you spot the key characteristics widely suspected to be missing from the Newlands set-up?
Little wonder, then, that John Dobson, in his maiden season as chief mastermind of the Stormers, would have found his usually glass-half-full, quirky persona stretched more than a bit toward the back end of this eventful week – one that provided some sense of clarity, if that is even the right word, on South African rugby’s home-resources future in devastatingly bleak economic times.
Already vulnerable to an accelerating extent because of the superior pulling power of currencies north of the equator, trying to keep players SA-based only became more of an uphill task for our franchises, given the knowledge that pay cuts of up to 43 percent until year’s end are possible due to the Covid-19 crisis and its blanking-out of major rugby for significant periods.
While players and coaches at Newlands have already tended to bite the bullet as best they could, the boardroom shenanigans of the last few years – including the legally burdensome, lingering Aerios dispute, the financial woe to the point of serious angst at various times over salary payments, Remgro’s stake-holding pull-out, the climate of fear, paranoia and secrecy in the admin offices – have only aggravated, and profoundly so, an already challenging climate.
Backdrop issues are highly likely to have been influential in a pattern of outbound player movement from WP Rugby that has been like that irksome, dripping tap that keeps you awake in the wee hours.
“This should be one of the greatest places in the world to play rugby,” a past player lamented to me this week, almost certainly echoing the view of others. “But the culture here has become so bad … officials have destroyed what was once a province that other players wished to flock to.”
Not everything happened at the last minute, in Stormers terms, when it came to the transfer tension of Thursday, and into Friday.
Theirs was more of a build-up of disconcerting news, as it had already become known beforehand that at least two stalwart Springbok players – fullback/wing Dillyn Leyds and strapping tighthead Wilco Louw (still well short of a prop’s customary prime, at 25) – would leave.
But then followed the apparent confirmation (at least from the UK end) on Thursday that flank-cum-lock Cobus Wiese, another forward with his best years potentially ahead as he is just short of 23, is England-bound.
His is an especially worrying development for Stormers/WP enthusiasts as it is increasingly being pointed out in the rugby world that versatile players will be worth additional weight in gold in a toughening marketplace.
By early Friday, the shrinking Capetonian stock of proven resources at the key backline berths of fullback and flyhalf only worsened as Jean-Luc du Plessis, an experienced No 10 and son of legendary former “Pickard era” WP star Carel, seemingly chose to shift to Japan’s Top League.
Though not confirmed at the time this was penned, his goodbye would be terribly damaging, leaving Dobson in a position where three known Super Rugby-level pivots on the books in 2019 (Du Plessis, Damian Willemse and the now Suntory Sungoliath-based Josh Stander) suddenly became one.
Bear in mind also that among their age-group players to leave for other climes in the off-season was Jordan Chait, the former Maties playmaker in the Varsity Cup now with the Sharks.
For the increasingly little it is worth these days, the Stormers will still be able to put together a useful enough starting XV on paper, assuming that all major resources are available.
But strong “squad systems” are absolutely essential in this era of high injury rates and stiff workload … and it here that Dobson’s staffing frankly looks more and more threadbare, to the point that he may do well to keep the franchise simply floating respectably near the surface rather than drowning, which was roughly the hallmark in Robbie Fleck’s prior era as head coach, too.
For two seasons not too long ago, between 2015 and 2016, the Stormers boasted a trio of enviable options in the critical, energy-sapping scrum berth of tighthead prop: Frans Malherbe, Vincent Koch and Louw.
Now, in stark contrast, they are down to only Bok stalwart and loyal Newlands servant (since 2011) in Malherbe … and there would be drama if he were to go down injured for any protracted period as they possess, in Louw’s wake, no proven other anchor-man at the Super Rugby tier of play.
It is extremely difficult to create a winning, consistently trophy-seeking culture with depth being eroded almost ceaselessly, rather than mushrooming.
As this was penned, World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit remained under Newlands terms, it appeared, although the situation was volatile as I checked in with sources on the critical matter: if WP Rugby have managed to hold onto the unassuming, highly professional and committed blond bomber, then unreserved kudos to them on that score.
Below is a summary – and it is not even all-embracing, omitting a few more peripheral names – of the departures the Stormers have had to deal with since 2016.
It is widespread enough, and splashed with some enormously pedigreed names, to suggest that pure economics cannot be cited as the reason alone for the defections.
There is much to answer for in the corridors of WP Rugby power.
Don’t expect swift illumination on that score: public relations all too often seems pretty low on their list of priorities …