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    Habana heads for ‘home’ slot

    2012-04-23 10:31

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - The Stormers face a patch-up job in selection terms for their last Super Rugby tour encounter with the Force in Perth on Saturday.

    After a relatively blissful few weeks in the early part of the competition, when injuries largely stayed away, the virus has struck in a big way over the past fortnight or so, taking them into unwanted territory that teams like the Lions and Reds have had to wrestle with consistently.

    The one thing in the Stormers’ favour, as opposed to the plight of the aforementioned two, is that they continue to ride high in both overall and SA conference terms, and ought to just about have enough depth of quality remaining to get past the Western Australians en route home.

    Luckily the Force encounter always shaped up as the “easiest” of their overseas fixtures on paper, and it is reflected in the home side’s current log position of 12th with only two wins to boast.

    And yet a banana peel factor almost always lurks in this competition, and it is sometimes said in soccer that a “manager-less” team can be dangerous and hard to predict.

    The Force have rather suddenly declared Richard Graham surplus to requirements, knowing that he is Reds-bound next season, and a coaching collective to help out in the interim will apparently include input from senior players like David Pocock.

    It is not a foregone conclusion, therefore, that morale will be low ... and the Force, who beat the Stormers 16-15 when the Cape side stopped off in Perth for their opening tour match in 2010, will also smell blood in the form of the many senior casualties their opponents now have.

    If it had been suggested at the start of the season that the Stormers might face certain matches without all of Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers, Duane Vermeulen, Gio Aplon and perhaps also Andries Bekker – players who form the side’s essential spine – then many of their enthusiasts would have winced with trepidation.

    But the youth development programme and fostering of a genuine “squad system”, initiated by now-departed Rassie Erasmus and tweaked and carried very smoothly forward by Allister Coetzee, has borne striking fruit this season, so filtering in greenhorns has been a less traumatic process than some might have feared.

    Manna from heaven in the shape of a first bye in some eight weeks looms immediately after the Force match, before the Stormers regroup to entertain the Cheetahs in a Newlands derby on Saturday, May 12.

    So a “bite the bullet for one more week” plea is sure to be spiritedly issued to the remaining tour troops – and, in truth, the Stormers can probably still put out a highly competitive side at nib Stadium this Saturday (11:40 SA time).

    There may even be some blessings among the relative debris of their crocked list: for instance, Springbok left wing stalwart Bryan Habana seems highly likely now to revert back to his favoured position, where he had looked so rejuvenated until his forced switch to outside centre for the 23-13 victory over the Reds.

    Habana fared competently in the No 13 jersey, but if someone like young JP du Plessis comes in now and fills the gap comfortably enough in Perth, his return to his favoured role hugging the left touchline may only enhance the Stormers for this particular occasion.

    In the absence of Vermeulen (captains or acting captains of the franchise can certainly be said to be tumbling like ninepins) Nick Koster is a similarly reassuring option at No 8, with rugged customers Siya Kolisi and Rynhardt Elstadt probably keeping their berths on the side of the scrum.

    There are ongoing doubts about the readiness of either of the current first-choice locks, Bekker and Eben Etzebeth, though if at least one of them can start at the weekend, it will be a good enough outcome.

    The Stormers’ physical and mental conditioning – at least as it affects those players not nursing injuries – seems a strong point this season, so there is hopefully no reason to fear that it will drop off to any great degree for the “halfway home” undertaking in Perth.

    Coach Coetzee may be quietly thinking to himself: “I can probably cobble together a side good enough to see off the Force ... but no more setbacks at this juncture, thank you very much.”

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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