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
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.”
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