Vodacom Super Rugby
Stormers show Loftus hand
Rynhardt Elstadt (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - They have a few issues behind the scrum to chew on, but it would seem as though the Stormers have pretty much settled on their starting pack for the Super Rugby-opening derby against the Bulls at Loftus on Friday, February 22.
The SA Conference winners for the past two seasons have a relatively “soft” last designated friendly at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday against neighbours Boland (14:45), but reading between the lines they will begin it with the likely forward unit also for the appetising Pretoria showdown.
With captain Schalk Burger and frontline hooker Tiaan Liebenberg not yet able to see active service in 2013 - though their respective returns ought to be fairly speedy - they are already wrestling a familiar bogey of not being able to field their strongest possible pack on paper.
But the more-than-respectable beneficiaries in the interim - both of whom should run out up front against both the Cavaliers and then the Bulls a fortnight later - are Rynhardt Elstadt and Deon Fourie.
The latter, with his greater mobility and tigerish approach to competition at the breakdown (he earned plaudits in a fairly pronounced switch to open-side flank at Newlands last season), has always been a close rival and sometimes preference in the starting mix to Liebenberg anyway.
In the case of the uncompromising Elstadt, Burger’s latest “niggle” misfortune - coming annoyingly on top of his long-term absence through a serious knee injury - is his own, early passport back to a first-team ticket.
A few weeks ago it seemed the Stormers’ front-line loose trio for early combat in Super Rugby 2013 was earmarked to be Burger (also recently officially restored to the leadership), Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen.
But with Burger’s return delayed, the versatile Elstadt, who is just as comfortable at No 4 lock, could clinch his Loftus role in the blindside flank jersey for the time being - with Kolisi shifting reasonably seamlessly to No 6 - if he shows enough lustre against the Bolanders after his own layoff in late 2012.
The Montagu-educated Elstadt is the ideal substitute for ever-fearless Burger if coach Allister Coetzee decides that the best way to combat the Bulls’ traditionally physical approach is to fight fire with fire.
Expect to see the talented tearaway Nizaam Carr, nevertheless, get a good chunk of game-time off the bench against Boland, and then quite possibly be employed in a very similar capacity during the second half of the showdown in the Bulls’ corral - he could introduce some potentially game-swaying X-factor if things are close.
The all-Springbok lock combination of Eben Etzebeth and Andries Bekker basically picks itself, even if Bekker, in particular, all too often is an injury setback just waiting to happen and may be employed reasonably sparingly on Saturday as he feels his own way back into first-class activity.
Meanwhile the choice of front row to play the Cavaliers - Steven Kitshoff, Fourie and recent Bok acquisition Pat Cilliers - also hints that this will be the brew against the Bulls, as the more immediate outing will give them a handy opportunity to gel.
Cilliers appears to have the inside lane for Loftus in the key, scrum-anchoring role of tighthead, although young Frans Malherbe (a bench presence on Saturday) may well breathe strongly down his neck and be a useful rotational option anyway as the season develops into the inevitable bump and grind.
If things look reasonably clear-cut in the pack as far as plans for Loftus are concerned, the Stormers still have to arrange some ducks in the halfback positions.
Dewaldt Duvenage will no doubt be closely monitored for sharpness at scrumhalf against Boland - he is another who missed a sizeable tract of play towards the end of 2012 - whilst Kurt Coleman may have to play out of his skin if he is to hold onto the No 10 jersey for the much more challenging trip to the north.
Coach Coetzee’s early-season intentions at flyhalf were disrupted recently when Elton Jantjies, the diminutive loan import from the Lions, left the camp for family bereavement reasons.
But he did reportedly stress earlier this week that Jantjies’ absence thus far will not preclude him from being considered for the Bulls fixture.
The left-footed Jantjies, you would think, will be more than “considered”.
With his known place-kicking prowess, for one thing, he seems sure to feature in the great north-south showdown which, if last season is any yardstick, may not have much in it in scoreboard terms and potentially be decided by high-pressurise Jantjies/Morne Steyn cracks at the posts ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing