Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Stormers will have to hope the combination
of smart technique and tenacity again trumps sheer bulk in the front row when
they meet the Sharks in a Super Rugby derby in Durban on Saturday (19:10
It got them through comfortably and commendably enough against
a reasonably behemoth Cheetahs starting trio despite the heavy conditions at
Newlands last weekend: now their fairly lightweight combo tackles the expected
might of the all-Springbok firm of Tendai Mtawarira and the Du Plessis
brothers, Bismarck and Jannie.
The Capetonian team, almost certainly, would dearly have
loved to have been able to reinforce their boiler-room ranks with the suitably
beefy young tighthead Frans Malherbe at Kings Park.
For a few weeks now, they have patiently been awaiting –
without any joy – the clearance of the emerging, now Test-capped No 3 after a
Malherbe’s 124kg frame would have helped to rebalance the
severely weakened Stormers front row in tale-of-the-tape terms against the
title-challenging Sharks, but a media release after the Bok training camp on
Wednesday confirmed that Malherbe was among a pretty large group of players who
were predominantly onlookers at the Durban get-together.
Certainly the wording of the statement did little to suggest
the 23-year-old from Paarl is ready for fresh combat any time soon: “(Malherbe
is) struggling with a significant concussion which he picked up in a Super
Rugby game a few weeks ago ... he has not met the criteria of returning safely
Ironically Malherbe got his maiden Test start against Wales
at the Millennium Stadium late last year, when the seasoned Du Plessis -- expected
to anchor the Sharks scrum on Saturday -- was absent through injury, and stood
his ground decently against old international fox Gethin Jenkins.
His continued sidelining only aggravates the situation in
the Stormers front row, where first-choice loosehead Steven Kitshoff (arguably
a victim of unsubtle overplaying by the franchise) is a long-term casualty now
and two pedigreed hookers in Scarra Ntubeni and the physical Tiaan Liebenberg
are also still crocked.
It has left them with a fairly newly-assembled alliance of
rookie No 1 Alistair Vermaak, that handily versatile forward Deon Fourie at
hooker, and good fill-in Pat Cilliers, an occasional Springbok, at tighthead.
Against big Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss and company
of the Cheetahs last Saturday, the trio stood their ground extraordinarily
well, considering that all three are not the most mammoth customers you will
ever see in their respective slots.
Cilliers, himself not long back from injury, tips the scales
at around 113kg, nippy and feisty Fourie just makes the 100kg mark and Vermaak
comes in at around 110kg.
That means that if they oppose the two robust Du Plessis
units and the “Beast” on Saturday, they will concede not far off 30 kilograms in
total in the front row, a pretty significant shortfall.
Still, the best rugby brains will remind you that brawn
isn’t everything and the truth is that the Stormers’ trio haven’t yet been
Vermaak, the least experienced of the group, has done
particularly well under the circumstances, not only being promisingly firm at
scrum-time but making his tackles and getting fulsomely involved in clean-outs
and the like too.
It is perhaps also a tribute to the oft-maligned Stormers’
coaching panel that the franchise lies second only to the Lions for scrum
success in the competition thus far if statistics are to be believed: it is a
glowing state of affairs bearing in mind that the tight five as a whole seems
to suffer enforced, disruptive personnel changes almost every round.
Mind you, possibly the most acid test for the present
front-row firm comes against the established, take-no-prisoners Bok threesome
of the Sharks this weekend.
Some comfort for the underdogs, perhaps, comes in the
likelihood that the pitch should be firm and dry on Saturday, allowing the
mobility of the visiting trio in general play to come into the equation even
more than was the case at early-winter, tempestuous Newlands a week ago ...
*Both match-day teams are scheduled to be revealed on
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