Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – I was a little critical of director
of coaching Rassie Erasmus’s decision to quit the Stormers/Western Province
just ahead of the new season, and still am.
He apparently stepped down, seemingly just as
his industry was set to bear tangible fruit, frustrated by the complex politics
of rugby in the Western Cape – a situation unlikely to be massively altered
since he first signed up at Newlands three or four years back.
Nevertheless, his strong commitment to
gradually bringing through bright young talent from within the province was well-known
and presumably appreciated by many around him.
And in the Stormers’ first pre-season
run-out, against smaller franchise partner the Boland Cavaliers at a
furnace-like Wellington on Saturday, we saw glimpses of his policy paying off,
even if any “delivery” – in the form of long-awaited significant silverware –
will now have to take place in his absence.
Whether the Cape side are finally ready to
go all the way to the Super Rugby or Currie Cup titles remains to be seen, of
course: they are sure to find it hard in the short term to compensate for the
irksome loss of key, counter-balancing experienced personnel like Jaque Fourie
and Francois Louw.
But in this friendly derby before a healthy
crowd, featuring a massively experimental visiting side – arguably starting
with fourth, fifth or even sixth choices in some positions – also came good
evidence of an abundant stock of players in or not long out of the U21 ranks, seemingly
fearless about the possibility of being asked to make a huge step up pretty shortly.
Under the circumstances, the Stormers
seeing off last season’s Currie Cup first division monopolisers 45-14, and by seven
tries to two, represented a sound enough start to their gruelling 2012 journey,
considering also that several rehabbing “hardebaarde” are set to re-enter the
equation over the next couple of weeks or thereabouts.
One of the ironies of the occasion was that
arguably the visiting player to most consistently catch the eye was near
34-year-old scrumhalf Bolla Conradie, who confirmed reports that he has started
this season with a renewed glint of ambition in his eyes.
He sniped through a hole delightfully for
the second Stormers try in the 15th minute, was the chief architect
in teeing up another for powerful right wing Danie Poolman, and generally did
his duties extremely impressively.
Conradie has probably lost half a yard in
outright pace in open play, but he remains snappy enough off the mark and could
greatly aid the franchise’s depth at No 9 even if he doesn’t always get ahead
of Dewaldt Duvenage or Nic Groom in the pecking order for starts.
And if that situation does materialise, it
will be a praiseworthy renaissance for a player who last contributed to the
Springbok cause as a substitute in a 19-8 Tri-Nations defeat to the All Blacks
in July 2008 in Wellington ... er, the slightly cooler one, that is.
The Boland version was a stamina-sapping 34
deg C at kick-off on Saturday, meaning a rugby match seemed as mean an event as
leaving a dog in a car without a window open. Why, Springbok spring-heeled
favourite Gio Aplon looked fatigued just sitting safely among the substitutes
in the shade.
But, to all the various combatants’ credit,
it didn’t prevent the game from having some periods of genuinely sprightly,
purposeful play, even with rust-induced mistakes frequently apparent and a
disruptive problem yet again with collapsed scrums – pray that is not going to
be a constant feature of the rugby landscape throughout the year!
Just which greenhorns in the Stormers ranks
will eventually make the squad cut for the first Super Rugby fixture against
the Hurricanes at Newlands on February 25 is a matter for speculation, but
several did begin the process of putting up their hands.
Beefy front-rower Frans Malherbe produced
some bullocking ball-carries, including one for a try, which is always
gratifying for those behemoths they call tightheads, Eben Etzebeth was
similarly workaholic in the second row alongside captain for the day De Kock
Steenkamp, and at No 8 Nizaam Carr earned a fitting “ever-present” tribute from
SuperSport commentator Robbie Kempson.
The latter’s pace and keenness to be
constructive was especially eye-opening: might he just have some role to play
in compensating to a degree for the loss to Bath of specialist fetcher Louw?
Carr is perhaps not geared to be an
out-and-out scavenger for the ball on the deck, but there may be certain similarities
in his game to Luke Watson, who doubled quite successfully at different stages
at Newlands as an orthodox No 8 and turnover factor at the breakdown.
Amongst the backs, there were pleasing little
touches from the likes of Berton Klaasen to suggest that if either of Jean de
Villiers or Juan de Jongh suddenly succumb to injury or over-use in midfield,
they may not be quite as stretched for deputies as has been feared.
There is a danger of reading too much into
height-of-summer exercises like this one, but at least last year’s SA conference
winners are out of the blocks fairly decently and already look in satisfying
conditioning nick ...
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