Stormers’ scrum edge to end?
Cape Town – Arguably the best scrummaging unit of the entire Super Rugby field thus far, the Stormers might just meet their Waterloo when defending champions the Waratahs square up to them at Allianz Stadium on Saturday (11:40 SA time).
Put it this way: if the visitors manage to put a notable shunt on the bulky ‘Tahs eight, their supremacy in the phase will be almost beyond dispute in 2015 even if the Crusaders might be best justified for shooting up a hand in indignant protest – at least when referees aren’t being too harsh on Wyatt Crockett’s much-debated technique.
The Stormers have subsided in recent weeks to mid-table overall, yet all season long the Capetonians have asserted themselves fairly forcefully at scrum time: if I were one of regular starting props Steven Kitshoff or Vincent Koch, for instance, I might be reasonably miffed that the franchise find themselves outside the coveted six playoffs berths right now.
Not only have the young front-rankers pulled their weight nobly at the set-piece, but they have asserted themselves industriously in open play too, a situation that may well not have gone unnoticed by Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer in a South African campaign thus far that has hardly produced endless positives for him to bank in his notebook.
Sadly from a Stormers point of view, they are not consistently managing to confirm the old adage that scrumming mastery is the key to final-whistle success on the scoreboard.
It has undoubtedly aided them in a few victories – the 29-13 disposal of the Sharks at Newlands back on March 7 comes quickly to mind – but there have been others where relative mediocrity in other areas has negated their scrum dominance.
Cases in point are the losses to crack New Zealand outfits the Chiefs (Newlands, 28-19) and the most recent, to the Hurricanes in Wellington (25-20), where there was plenty of reason for whooping and high-fiving after scrums but the last laugh in match result terms belonged to the opposition.
It is against this backdrop that the task facing the Stormers in Sydney on Saturday, especially given the mental fragility that may well have taken root from three defeats on the trot, looks particularly daunting.
That is because the Waratahs boast a juggernaut eight unused to back-pedalling at scrum-time, so the tourists may find that their one area of regular mastery is thwarted anyway.
Tighthead Koch has looked near-awesome against all comers thus far, but should lock horns for the first time in his career with one of the wiliest, most awkward scrummagers in the business in nuggety Wallaby Benn Robinson – a now 10-year veteran of Super Rugby after making his first appearance in 2006.
On the other side of the scrum, expect the flame-haired Kitshoff to resume his acquaintance with another sturdy, 52-cap international in Waratahs No 3 Sekope Kepu.
Of course the NSW side don’t exactly have shrinking violets in the rest of their pack, either: not when names like freakishly large Will Skelton, plus Jacques Potgieter and Wycliff Palu – the last-named player probably quite happy not to have to square up to Duane Vermeulen this week – come to mind.
So if ever there was a need for the Stormers not to put all their eggs in the scrummaging basket (though they would obviously be daft to suddenly neglect it) and to prove they have multi-dimensional strings to their team bow, this may well be the fitting occasion.
The time must come when coach Allister Coetzee realises his current best two props need a break – Kitshoff has been unacceptably exposed to burnout before – but it is unlikely to be this weekend against the uncompromising Waratahs, who have not lost at home to these foes since 2007.
Nevertheless, in the shape of Springbok tighthead Frans Malherbe and the fast-improving Oli Kebble, the Stormers do possess rosy front-rank depth: perhaps the Force game which concludes their Australasian tour in Perth on April 18 is an opportunity to do some necessary rotation.
After all, conclusion of the overseas leg hardly signals a respite for Coetzee’s charges: when they return to South Africa they are immediately in action against the Bulls (Cape Town), Cheetahs (Bloemfontein) and Brumbies (Cape Town) before the luxury of another bye in mid-May.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing