Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Auckland - If you look at where the changes have been made you might suggest the Stormers are up the creek without a paddle going into Friday’s must-win Vodacom Super Rugby clash with the Blues, but that is not the way their coach Allister Coetzee sees it.
Youngsters Lionel Cronje, Juan de Jongh and Johann Sadie will line up next to each other from flyhalf to outside centre in what is definitely the most inexperienced Stormers back division to have played together since 2009. They are playing because flyhalf Peter Grant, inside centre Jean de Villiers and outside centre Jaque Fourie have all been ruled out with injury.
All of those players are Springboks, with De Villiers and Fourie being incumbent internationals and quite possibly the best midfield combination on the planet, so they are big players to lose, and the favourites tag will certainly shift to the Blues in their absence.
However, as Coetzee has pointed out to the Cape media, what the Stormers do have now is a unknown quality about them and Sadie in particular will have the Blues guessing as to his capabilities and playing style.
Although Sadie did play wing against the Crusaders and his straightening of the line did create the try that Fourie scored in that game, he has made only fleeting appearances as a replacement at his preferred position of outside centre, which is where he is lining up on Friday.
One of the star players in the Western Province Under-21 team that dominated the national competition in 2010, there have been a few questions asked about Sadie’s defensive game but there is no denying his awesome attacking potential and Coetzee seldom mentions his name without also talking about the X-factor.
“Juan and Johann are both exciting players, so it is a great opportunity for them, regardless of whether or not they have played together as a combination before,” said Coetzee.
“These are two good rugby players and I have full confidence in them. They are facing a quality centre combination in Luke McAlister and Jared Payne, but who knows what might happen. It could be important that no-one knows much about Johann Sadie at centre. They don’t know what he can bring to the party, and I am sure he is looking forward to the challenge. He may surprise a few people.”
That he certainly could, for Sadie is being spoken of in WP circles as a big part of the future plans in the region. And while De Jongh has spent much of the season on the bench, he was excellent in last year’s Super 14 and ended up playing international rugby, where he was considered one of the best newcomers.
While De Jongh doesn’t quite have his mojo yet, he has played some good cameos that have served as a reminder of what he is capable of, particularly when he came on as a replacement in the match against the Bulls at Loftus in March.
There is a perception in the Cape that De Jongh has lost form that is largely because of the poor decision making that has seen him butcher a couple of easy try-scoring opportunities. However, as a lot of those opportunities came through his own good work in either breaking the line or being in the right place at the right time in seizing on opposition mistakes, it could be argued that all he needs to do is cross the line once and his white-line fever will be behind him.
It is also fortunate for the Stormers that Cronje got to play almost three full games while Grant was absent through injury in the weeks following the loss to the Reds. He acquitted himself well in those games and while his goalkicking may not be as reliable as Grant’s he arguably does have better distribution skills.
So while the injuries mean the Stormers go into the match as underdogs, it’s not exactly as if they are going in on a wing and a prayer, and they might well be advised to take a look back at what happened to them when they played an under strength Crusaders team a few weeks ago if they are looking for encouragement.
If the Stormers can beat a full-strength Blues team in Auckland while they are under strength, it will be a significant boost to their confidence at a crucial stage of the season.