Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The reasonably bright, “60-40” prospect of flyhalf Elton Jantjies being fit for consideration for the Stormers’ opening fixture of their Australasian Super Rugby tour against the Hurricanes next Friday may give coach Allister Coetzee a pleasant problem.
The mid-table franchise, for whom their four-match venture could amount to a make-or-break affair in playoffs prospects terms, tackle the New Zealanders at Palmerston North (09:35 SA time) before moving on to fixtures against the Blues, Waratahs and Rebels.
After revealing a 26-strong tour party at a media briefing on Friday, ahead of departure, Coetzee expressed his satisfaction at the timely returns to the frame of players like Eben Etzebeth, Scarra Ntubeni, Rynhardt Elstadt, Bryan Habana and Jantjies.
As things stand, Ntubeni, Elstadt and Habana are regarded as available for immediate call-up, with both Jantjies and Springbok lock sensation of 2012, Etzebeth, deemed 60 percent possibilities for the Hurricanes clash.
Given that they are not quite firing on maximum cylinders, it seems likely that the last-named two may earn bench status at best in Palmerston North, and then be raring to go for the arguably trickier tussle with the Blues a week later.
The Stormers are understandably keen to only step up Jantjies’ acclimatisation to the team, following his temporary recruitment from the Lions, as he has blown hot and cold in early appearances, hampered by injury setbacks and the earlier loss of his father which put him on the back foot mentally fairly quickly.
But should he get the medical all-clear to face the unpredictable ‘Canes, it cannot be regarded as a given that he will start: Gary van Aswegen’s plucky and pretty enterprising display in the morale-lifting triumph over the Sharks at Newlands may see him have to be “played out” of the No 10 shirt.
The often injury-bedevilled Van Aswegen, 23, was a sharp link-man in that match, putting out crisp passes that provided welcome momentum at times to the outside backs.
For the time being, of course, neither Jantjies nor Van Aswegen needs to worry about the place-kicking aspect because it is in the trustworthy hands of diminutive back-three stalwart Joe Pietersen, so it may come down to a “right horse for the course” approach between the two pivots in the early phase of the tour at least.
Whilst they are beefing themselves up nicely in most departments with the filtration of fit-again players back, the Stormers may be viewed as a little thin at loosehead prop, where Deon Carstens has been forced into retirement - it leaves young Steven Kitshoff as the only genuine specialist in the position.
Asked by Sport24 whether Kitshoff suffering any mishap on tour would prove problematic, Coetzee replied: “I’m very happy with what we’ve got ... I think I would have a problem if two props were to go down.
“Pat Cilliers showed against the Crusaders at loosehead how well he can scrum there, and then you have Brok (Harris) and Frans (Malherbe), two quality tightheads, with Pat able to cover No 1 if necessary. At this point we’re doing OK.”
Would the Stormers “target” certain tour games, as has happened fairly obviously for some South African sides in the past?
“We don’t have the luxury to target; every game is important to us! First target is simply the Hurricanes, who are playing really good rugby at the moment.
“They’re a much improved side, with quality players ... outstanding players out at the back in Conrad Smith, (Julian) Savea. They’re also using Beauden Barrett at the back a bit, with his kicking skills and reading (of play).
Coetzee was also asked whether the squad would enjoy being away from the constant pressures of media and public in the Western Cape.
“If I’ve ever said that (before) I never meant it in an ugly way. But honestly, this team enjoys touring: there’s time for everything; hard work and some fun.
“One big strength for us is the diversity in this team – it makes it nice to go and experience other cultures, with a great bunch who truly enjoy each others’ company. A bit out of Cape Town ... no, it’s not a bad thing.”*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing