In his novel A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickins said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
South African rugby’s traditional rivalry between the Bulls and the Stormers will add another chapter to its storied past this Friday night at Loftus Versveld. And much like Dickens’ tale, you would be hard-pressed to find two clubs who differ so vastly in terms of success and stature at this point in their illustrious histories.
Their rivalry was born during South Africa’s years of isolation from world sport and the Currie Cup was almost exclusively ferried between Cape Town and Pretoria each season.
However, fast forward to 2021 and it is the Bulls who hold all the cards and the Stormers seem to be left punch drunk at the card table, holding nothing.
For the Bulls, it is the best of times, an age of wisdom and it is a season of light. Patrice Motsepe, the billionaire mining magnate, acquired a 37 per cent stake in the club and immediately set about using those funds in recruiting some world-class management and players to the club.
Some eyebrows were raised when Jake White was appointed director of rugby in 2020 – his forthright manner at times and a history of belligerence has seen him often leave clubs (Montpellier, Sharks, Brumbies) abruptly and often with burnt bridges still on fire at the exit door.
However, his influence as director of rugby has already borne fruit for the Bulls, with two trophies (Super Rugby Unlocked, Currie Cup) locked away until next season.
White has also recruited superbly during his tenure so far, experienced players such as Nizaam Carr, Gio Aplon, and Arno Botha, but none more influential than Duane Vermeulen, anointed as captain and recently sweeping all before him in collecting individual and team awards at the annual SRugby AU awards dinner.
The Bulls are in the midst of building a championship team, the club has real investment (which can’t be understated in these vacillating times), they’ve built depth in their roster, but most importantly they are winning and have an actual direction in terms of where they want to place themselves over the next few years as a team and as a club.
White has also expanded their way of playing to a degree – the Bulls will always have a monstrous pack of forwards, astute tactical kickers and a superb set-piece. It is in their DNA as a club and will always be.
While the Bulls are expanding their philosophy (which you can only do with confidence and winning culture), the overall skill factor has been the most impressive aspect of their style of play.
Their tight forwards are now not only offloading in the tackle but actively seeking to put a teammate into space instead of trying to run through the opponent, which is testament to their growth as a team, especially considering their traditional pattern of play.
For the Stormers, it is the worst of times, an age of foolishness and it is a season of darkness. Western Province Professional Rugby was liquidated in 2017 after a botched business deal in which WPPR was found guilty of bad business faith.
This is after they were considered one of the wealthiest unions in domestic rugby. Now they sit with enormous debt and court cases piling up like uncollected rubbish during a strike.
They moved from their traditional stronghold Newlands to Green Point Stadium, which will not generate the same atmosphere when crowds are allowed back in, as well as the continuous boardroom trouble which plagues the union to this very day.
Almost a decade ago, during Allister Coetzee’s reign, they had the best defensive system in Super Rugby, their roster had players such as Schalk Burger, Jean De Villiers, Jaque Fourie, and Bryan Habana, and yet still no silverware after making it into the playoffs and a final against the Bulls.
Robbie Flecks’ time in charge saw the Stormers regress even further as their game plan relied almost exclusively on scrum penalties and the player roster was drained without being filled up, due in no small part to the enormous amount of debt the union holds.
And even with a schoolboy catchment area some international teams could only dream of, those youngsters are now looking at plying their trade overseas or other clubs such as the Sharks and Bulls.
Currently, John Dobson is the head coach with a Table Mountain-like climb needed to get some form of identity back into the Stormers club.
It is made all the more difficult when your star player, Siya Kolisi, has moved to the Sharks, Pieter-Steph du Toit will be moving to Japan, and Dobson has all but confirmed his departure.
Their lack of attacking prowess and understanding between forwards and backs is non-existent, even with the precocious talents of Damien Willemse (who did recently re-sign with the club) and Herschelle Janties on their books, they just don’t have the quality around them to truly express their best attributes.
The boardroom also made a complete mockery and their incompetence was the only dim light in their botched attempt to secure much need funds from an American group called MVM Holdings. Cue the departure of Kolisi to Durban along with MVM Holdings and their cash cow, which is now all being funneled into the Sharks.
When the deal fell through for MVM Holdings, the Sharks delivered their due diligence within a few days and the deal was done.
What is considered a cliché and corporate talk of how everything filters from the top down is crystal clear and a painful truth in the contrasting fortunes of the Bulls and the Stormers.
Whilst the Bulls continually move forward in a clear direction of what is best for their club’s long-term interests, the Stormers take two steps back for every one they take forward, and in doing so, still manage to trip over their own feet.
As Dickens attests in his novel, for the Stormers it is the worst of times, it is a season of darkness and will continue into a winter of despair for some time to come.