Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It probably says much about the success of the youth production line in the Stormers camp these days that the return of a 20-year-old prop is so keenly required for their last Super Rugby away match against the Cheetahs next Saturday.
Steven Kitshoff was rested for the home game against the Lions, where the SA conference leaders stared down the barrel of possible defeat at one stage before grittily closing out the match 27-17.
Severely disrupted by an ongoing injury plague and also a debilitating flu bug in the lead-up to the Lions game, the Stormers will simply be delighted to have bagged another four points despite another mostly grim spectacle for the Newlands faithful.
They are in an interesting position because topping the overall table remains a fair likelihood - leaders the Chiefs next entertain a Crusaders side presumably highly irked by having been edged out at home by the Hurricanes - but they could also yet be pushed right out of a finishing spot in the top two if they lose decisively in Bloemfontein.
The consequences of that are serious, of course, because they would surrender the rights to an automatic ticket in the playoffs phase to a home semi-final.
One of the keys to their staving off the “unthinkable”, after bossing the SA conference for so long, will be rectifying a notably creaking scrum against the Lions.
It is here where the likely return of stocky redhead Kitshoff on the loosehead side of the pack ought to serve as an important stabiliser.
The young prospect quite rightly sat out the Lions fixture entirely after a particularly murderous work-rate for the last few weeks: not only had he been a regular for the Stormers up to the Test window but he was then also centrally involved in the Baby Boks’ triumph in the IRB Junior World Championships where a two-games-a-week format pretty much prevailed.
In his absence on Saturday, veteran journeyman Deon Carstens
deputised for only the second time this season in a home eight which was pushed right off its own ball two or three traumatic times.
There were several mitigating circumstances because with Springbok second-rower Eben Etzebeth
sidelined (it seems that is likely to remain the case for Bloemfontein) the Stormers effectively fielded two “athletic” No 5 locks in the shape of returning Andries Bekker
and De Kock Steenkamp, arguably depriving them of a bit of grunt, tighthead Frans Malherbe was reportedly feeling a little poorly and the lighter Deon Fourie started the game at hooker ahead of more renowned scrummager Tiaan Liebenberg
Malherbe took some strain against a no-nonsense JC Janse van Rensburg (although he contributed pluckily in general play) and it must be a quiet concern to the Stormers brains-trust that the Lions, fielding the inexperienced Callie Visagie and Jacobie Adriaanse in their own front row, dominated this area to the extent they did.
Nobody at Newlands needs reminding that a masterful display by the Crusaders at scrum-time was the foundation for their emphatic 29-10 triumph in last season’s Cape Town semi, so renewed difficulties at the set-piece are rather untimely from a Stormers point of view.
Coach Allister Coetzee
and company face some tricky selection issues for the Cheetahs game, even if the absence of the home team’s behemoth prop Coenie Oosthuizen
will be regarded secretly as a blessing in their quest not to go backwards again.
Kitshoff’s return seems a fait accompli - even if in an ideal world another week’s rest would probably be the appropriate scenario for him - and perhaps Liebenberg will be restored to the middle of the front row now in spite of Fourie’s livewire showing outside the scrums.
The smaller of the No 2s may, in fact, be considered for open-side flank at Free State Stadium, as a counter of sorts to Heinrich Brüssow, as he did well there when Liebenberg emerged off the bench in the second half on Saturday and went straight to hooker.
At least one of the Stormers’ “enforcers”, Rynhardt Elstadt, is available again for the trip after missing the Lions match through suspension, and it is possible he will be paired up anew with Bekker in the second row (an alliance that worked well last year) instead of back at blindside flank.
He is just the kind of ball-carrier needed to give them some fresh oomph in the tight-loose.
If the visitors do opt to field Fourie at No 6 and retain the pretty impressive rookie Don Armand at No 7 - he was tremendous in the lineouts and contributed to a critical turnover tackle that turned the tide against the Lions - then Siya Kolisi could safely be asked to do duty as eighth-man once more: he adapted very creditably to the chore on Saturday and certainly worked his socks off.
Behind the scrum, the impressive wing Danie Poolman hobbling off before half-time was just another in the line of infuriating blows this season, but his probable absence will be offset by Bryan Habana
and Joe Pietersen
returning to the back three anyway.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing