According to Germanic mythology, Thor was a temperamental, hammer-wielding god of lightning, thunder and storms. Then Hollywood turned him into Chris Hemsworth, a heartthrob with blonde hair and piercing eyes capable of charming the pants off a nerdy scientist.
Thor is also a man of principle, with a tendency to save mankind from itself, even if the cost is his own life.
With the South African Super Rugby teams taking on superhero themes, the choice of Thor for the Stormers seemed to have been made with eighth man Duane Vermeulen in mind. But all that marketing potential is lost now that the Springbok’s Mjölnir, or hammer of Thor, has signed for the Bulls, which represent Captain America. It’s awkward, but the show must go on – and for the Stormers there is an even greater desire for redemption.
Led by Springbok captain Siya Kolisi – a man of equal talent to Vermeulen, just with less blonde hair – the Stormers will be looking to bring thunder and lightning to their game to make up for a damp squib of a season last year. Their six wins in the 2018 Super Rugby campaign was their lowest number of wins since 2009. Their only salvation was that the bumbling Bulls had an even worse season, finishing with a points difference of -61.
‘Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor’
Kolisi is a player who has trudged a more difficult road to rugby stardom than most, from the ranks of the Eastern Province Under-16 team in 2007 to the glory of his watershed moment being appointed as the first black captain of the green and gold. Yet at every turn, like Thor, Kolisi must prove himself worthy of the Springbok captaincy and his place in the national team.
At Super Rugby level though, there is no debate.
Kolisi is a versatile back-row player who is equally strong in all three positions. His explosivity and athleticism set him apart from his loose forward competitors. He is what scientists call a mesomorph, meaning he is lean in body mass but can increase muscle mass over a very short period of time. Kolisi’s uncanny ability to accelerate over short distances means he will more often than not have the upper hand at the point of impact.
As the country’s first black Springbok captain, Kolisi is under relentless scrutiny from detractors and admirers. At the Stormers, he leads a formidable forward pack of heroes in their own right, namely Steven Kitshoff and Bongi Mbonambi. Like Kolisi, they too have an arduous journey to travel this season to prove they are legitimate Super Rugby title contenders. A dismal showing last season, when they finished second from the bottom in the South African conference, means they begin 2019 as no-hopers until they prove otherwise.
Though Kolisi has sometimes been described as South Africa’s answer to Australian David Pocock’s biceps at the breakdown, it is his defence that has largely gone unsung. He has an 80% tackle rate, missing just 30 tackles in Super Rugby last season. He isn’t the most prolific try scorer, but it isn’t necessary given the players and teams for which he has played.
Kolisi’s ability to play at six, seven or eight makes him an invaluable player in any setup, although his versatility also makes him vulnerable to the specialist skills found in the rich vein of talent among South Africa’s loose forwards.
But two factors that could change the Cape team’s fortunes are Kolisi’s exemplary leadership qualities and his physical attributes. The Port Elizabeth-born talisman is not a natural leader, but he has grown into positions of leadership when they have presented themselves.
Since making his Springbok debut on 15 June 2013, a day before his 22nd birthday – and being made Man of the Match – Kolisi’s star has risen despite the naysayers. His is the true story of an underdog making good on his promise to achieve what many believed was impossible. He was appointed as captain of the Stormers on 20 February 2017 and became the new captain of the Springboks on 28 May last year.
Kolisi faces arguably one of his toughest seasons, leading an out of sorts Stormers team that is plagued by drama off the field involving assistant coaches Paul Treu and Paul Feeney. The feud is not quite on the level of Thor and his estranged brother, Loki, but it is a distraction the Stormers can ill afford.
With a Rugby World Cup on the horizon and expectations pegged at nothing less than a triumph in Japan in September, the pressure on Kolisi has never been greater. There will be moments in the year ahead that appear tailor-made for the big screen, when Kolisi comes face to face with opposing forces that will stop at nothing to destroy his legend, on and off the field.
A man in Kolisi’s position attracts more attention than necessary, evidenced by the furore that surrounded his comments about quota players in the Springbok setup. The media feasted on those words spoken in Japan a few months ago, and unfairly spun them into something he didn’t mean. But such is the life of a Springbok captain yet to win over the hearts of more close-minded Springbok fans.
Kolisi need only be his inspirational self and trust in his ability to succeed against the odds, an inner power that has served him well thus far.
He is no blue-eyed superhero in the Hollywood mould, but he does possess an uncanny ability to get the most out of his team when it matters most – much like a certain T’Challa, otherwise known as Black Panther, who rallied his troops to protect their kingdom when it was under attack.
The first black Springbok captain will be key to the Stormers’ success this year, and he’ll have plenty of backup in fellow forwards Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Mbonambi and Sikhumbuzo Notshe. The mighty Eben Etzebeth will join forces with his teammates once he recovers from injury in a few weeks’ time.
The strength and depth of the Stormers pack will carry them for the bulk of the tournament and should provide a solid base from which their backs can launch meaningful attacks. The Cape team struggled to get that strategy right last season, but superpowers don’t just vanish overnight.
The Stormers should not be underestimated – particularly at home in Newlands, where they’ve been most successful.
Despite the presence of talented Springboks Damian Willemse, Ruhan Nel and Damian de Allende, the Stormers appear light on international experience among the backs. It is a factor that leaves them vulnerable against seasoned opposition such as the Crusaders and Chiefs. It’s a dilemma that could cost the team on defence, especially considering that they finished the 2018 Super Rugby season with a -33 points difference.
The Stormers didn’t travel well in 2018 and will need to improve on that front. Off the field, the ongoing feud involving Treu and Feeney could spill over on to the field, spelling doom for the Stormers.
Planet (Power rank)
After the misery of 2018, it’s difficult to find the silver lining for the Stormers. They did well enough to win the Super Hero Sunday “title”, but real rugby scripts cannot be found in comic books. At this point, there is little evidence to suggest a surprisingly happy ending for the Stormers in 2019.
That said, fortunes can change swiftly in Super Rugby. But it will take a superhuman effort from coach Robbie Fleck’s charges to challenge for the title, considering the competition. Too many variables and too much uncertainty make them also-rans this time around.
The loss of Vermeulen to the Bulls may be another shard of kryptonite that could weaken the Stormers. The man who personified Thor will now face his former allies, knowing all their weak points and blind spots.
The Stormers and Bulls face off in the opening fixture on 16 February, and it is this duel that will set the tone for the men of lightning and thunder. Playing alongside Vermeulen are a host of superbly talented rugby players.
In this context, the traditional North versus South battle suddenly becomes an intergalactic duel to the death. As with Thor, the Stormers must now prove themselves worthy.
This is part one of four in a series of profiles on the South African franchises who will be flying the flag in this year’s Super Rugby.