Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Down to bare bones in some positions after several selection hammer blows this week, the conference-leading Stormers are clearly going to have to strive for what would be a “famous” victory against Super Rugby arch-rivals the Bulls on Saturday.
That might sound overly dramatic, considering that as recently as last season the Cape side won the corresponding fixture, and also that they’ve already bagged the first-round meeting at Newlands in 2012.
But the injury-enforced composition of their side for this weekend’s critical Loftus date is such that the dice is only loading by the day in favour of the Bulls getting a healthy scent of opposition vulnerability and making it count (perhaps even ruthlessly?) on the scoreboard.
If it never rains but it pours, the news on Wednesday that the most senior first-choice Stormers forward of recent weeks, Andries Bekker, had joined the casualty list for as many as five weeks only gave impressive weight to that theory.
Keep in mind that in-form fullback Joe Pietersen also failed to restore his fitness in time for the north-south crunch, and that earlier in the week their blossoming loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff was plucked away for “priority” duty with the Baby Boks.
Even the most dyed-in-the-wool of Stormers supporters will probably acknowledge that on paper, their side will warrant going in as underdogs, despite ongoing two-point supremacy on the table.
The XV - and, indeed, entire match 22 - announced by coach Allister Coetzee on Wednesday certainly reveals hallmarks in certain areas of a “B-side” flavour as 15 weeks of gruelling activity takes a savage toll at present.
Particularly as far as the pack is concerned, you might argue that there are some comparisons to be made with the “Bulls B” side chosen two years ago for a pre-knockout game against the Stormers at Newlands, the visitors already safe in the knowledge that they had log-topping status and a home semi-final.
Then, the Stormers, eventual losing finalists to the fuller-complement Bulls, still needed to win with a bonus point to seal their own home semi, and duly saw off the depleted side from Pretoria 38-10 with the required four tries.
Circumstances are entirely different this time, with the game likely to have a strong bearing on who tops the conference after ordinary season, so of more customary importance to both sides.
But if you had examined the Stormers pack -- and accompanying, five-strong list of forward reserves -- for the latest encounter right at the outset of the current season, you might have been forgiven for suspecting that it was their second-string combo.
Keep in mind, of course, that players like Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi have since made gigantic strides in a short time, but the fact remains that in early February you would not have banked on either greenhorn being a “must pick” for regular Super Rugby starts.
The lock pairing, for instance, might reasonably have been expected at that fledgling stage of the season to comprise Bekker and Rynhardt Elstadt - they had been the successful main second-rowers in the 2011 competition.
As for the rest of the tight five, veteran journeyman Deon Carstens and fresh-faced tighthead Frans Malherbe being the props would hardly have been a fait accompli ... and if you had been told that for a blood-and-thunder, late-campaign tussle at Loftus the loose trio would be one Jebb Sinclair, Kolisi and an Elstadt restored out of necessity to back row duty, you might have been excused for thinking your informant badly needed his head read.
No sign at all of Messrs Burger, Vermeulen and Koster? It would all have seemed so surreal ... ditto a bench for the Bulls away challenge including such surnames as Armand, Roux and Fenton-Wells!
Perhaps the lone bastion of assuredness lies at hooker, where the seasoned, bulldozing Tiaan Liebenberg is at his post for an intriguing showdown with Chiliboy Ralepelle.
If there is one consolation from a Stormers perspective, it is that neither talent nor street-wisdom are too glaringly absent from the patchwork eight selected, although an almighty effort and fierce collective resolve will be required to at least “hold out” the home unit.
As if to further add to the theme of setback and uncertainty, captain Jean de Villiers again did not train on Wednesday as he is nursing flu.
Asked by Sport24 if the Bok midfielder would, indeed, be ready for an intense 80 minutes of combat in Highveld conditions, coach Coetzee went out of his way, understandably, to sound upbeat.
“I’m very confident he’ll be alright. It won’t be a problem - Jean felt a helluva lot better this morning. No concerns whatsoever. He felt the effects on Monday already and is over the worst.”
With midfield resources not exactly buxom in the Stormers camp, that seemed comforting news to supporters, especially as there will only be two backline reserves at Loftus and neither of them (Louis Schreuder and Burton Francis) a centre.
If De Villiers should run out of puff in the closing minutes on Saturday, either of Bryan Habana or Peter Grant could be switched into emergency midfield duty.
But the Stormers have probably had enough of emergencies for the time being ...Teams:Bulls:
15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies (captain), 7 CJ Stander, 6 Dewald Potgieter, 5 Juandre Kruger, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Dean Greyling
Substitutes: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Rayno Gerber, 18 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 19 Arno Botha, 20 Jano Vermaak, 21 Louis Fouche, 22 Francois VenterStormers:
15. Gio Aplon, 14. Gerhard van den Heever, 13. Juan de Jongh, 12. Jean de Villiers (captain), 11. Bryan Habana, 10. Peter Grant, 9. Dewaldt Duvenage, 8. Jebb Sinclair, 7. Rynhardt Elstadt, 6. Siya Kolisi, 5. De Kock Steenkamp, 4. Eben Etzebeth, 3. Frans Malherbe, 2. Tiaan Liebenberg, 1. Deon Carstens
Substitutes: 16. Deon Fourie, 17 Brok Harris, 18. Quinn Roux, 19. Don Armand, 20. Nick Fenton-Wells, 21. Louis Schreuder, 22. Burton Francis
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