Johannesburg - A few weeks ago, when Rassie Erasmus departed as director of rugby, many DHL Stormers supporters would have feared the worst, but those negative feelings don’t appear to have been shared by the coaches and players.
On the day it was officially confirmed he would not be filling the Springbok coaching position many thought was his for the taking through much of last year, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee looked decidedly upbeat. And he looked that way for good reason.
Although it is early days, and there is still a month before the proper season kicks off, so far the performance of the team has not shown any signs of being affected by the off-the-field shenanigans rumoured to be diverting the Western Province union behind the scenes.
Coetzee is a good coach and while Erasmus was a strong member of the management and brought X-factor, the former Springbok assistant did go it alone for much of last year – and with considerable success. Being the first winner of the South African conference in Super Rugby and ending second on the log when injuries forced you to use five different flyhalves is nothing to scoff at, and neither was the achievement in the Currie Cup, where injuries and World Cup call-ups meant the team that made the semifinals was essentially an under-21 team.
Many of those youngsters are coming through now, and so are others who are the product of the succession planning that Erasmus was so good at. The 28-6 win over the Lions in the DHL Series game at Newlands on Friday saw some of those players shining, with flanker Siya Kolisi carrying on the promise showed in the last domestic season.
Perhaps the one to watch out for though is No4 lock Eben Etzebeth. Last year Rynhardt Elstadt, another youngster, bolted almost out of the blue – he had been a blindside flanker for most of his earlier career – to establish himself as an established and much feared second row partner for Andries Bekker who played the Bakkies Botha role in the Stormers engine room.
After playing the first two warm-up games of 2012, and having added to his already considerable bulk in his off-season conditioning, recent age-group player Etzebeth looks like he can easily do this season what Elstadt did last year. Admittedly it was a scrumhalf on the receiving end, but the way he drove back Michael Bandiseo several metres was frightening to behold, and several other Lions players were on the receiving end during the match.
Always careful not to build up players too much in front of a Cape media that he fears is too quick to make his team champions and his players Springboks, Coetzee was careful to choose his words when speaking about Etzebeth’s potential.
“Look guys, Eben Etzebeth is not a Springbok yet, not by any stretch of the imagination, but boy, I have been really pleased with his progress and the contribution he has made in these pre-season games and he has incredible potential,” said Coetzee.
“Last year we saw what impact Rynhardt (Elstadt) made at No4 lock and now we have a player who can back him up. We have depth there, in a very important area, and that is pleasing to me.”
It was too early to tell how much depth he has at flyhalf, which was where all the injuries happened last year, for Gary van Aswegen was playing his first game after a long injury lay-off. He dropped a few balls and did not put his stamp on the match, but then he was also playing behind a scrum that was on the back foot for much of the night.
Not that Coetzee or captain Schalk Burger were too concerned about the set-scrums, even though they were the Achilles heel last year and what saw them hit a dead-end in the semifinal against Crusaders.
“There has been a change of emphasis in the engagement at the scrums as per directive from the Sanzar referees,” said Coetzee.
“Instead of the engagement being initiated from the back, from the No8, we have now been instructed that it has to be initiated by the front row. This is a big adjustment that has to be made and we were only informed about it today.”
The Lions would have been pleased with their scrumming effort, nonetheless, and it partly off-set a horrible night at the lineouts, where the Stormers were dominant.
“For us it was just important to get a hit out,” said their coach John Mitchell. “We didn’t expect to be where the Stormers are as they have played one more game than us. That said, I was disappointed with our attack and there is some work to be done there.”
The Stormers play the Cheetahs in their next DHL Series game at Newlands on Saturday evening.