Cape Town – New Stormers coach Eddie Jones is going to have a more challenging Super Rugby season in 2016 than he may even realise yet from a playing resources point of view.
It is likely to be a matter raised among many other topics when he meets the local media for the first time this Thursday.
His squad will have an unavoidably fluid look about it both at the outset (including his important pre-season phase as he works with so many first-time charges) and then potentially well into the competition itself.
Jones will have to contend not only with the absence of several staple Springbok figures for his first few weeks at the helm due to their Japanese club deals, but then also the likelihood that several established backline players will be periodically tied up with national Sevens duties during an Olympics-geared year.
When he first dons his Stormers tracksuit, he will know that glaring missing links in his quest to establish immediate synergies will include the franchise’s best lock, Eben Etzebeth (NTT Docomo Red Hurricanes), veteran loose forward Schalk Burger (Suntory Sungoliath) and perhaps the most influential name on paper in the Stormers’ backline as things stand, Damian de Allende (Kintetsu Liners).
They have Japanese Top League contracts in a season that ends with the final on January 24.
Although that is just over a month before Super Rugby hostilities kick off in an expanded competition, bear in mind that the trio mentioned will not have had an off-season as they travelled to their Japanese outfits so soon after the finish of the World Cup.
You would think it will be in the interests of the Stormers’ bigger-picture needs for the lengthy slog – the season drags on until early August – to largely give forwards Etzebeth and Burger, particularly, some feet-up time for a few weeks, which will only make it more difficult to slot them in seamlessly to his plans.
At least Jones and Burger are pretty well acquainted with each other, as Burger is a survivor from the coach’s days as a consultant to the Springboks when they last won the World Cup in 2007.
There is also a case for saying it is best to be philosophical about high-quality South African players seeking lucrative Japanese sojourns – call it a tolerable evil? – because it is better that they go there than to Europe, which precludes any Super Rugby presence.
But there will be a further minefield for the former Australia and Japan mastermind to negotiate, and it has to do with the Stormers serving up a dangerously high tally of their back-division personnel to the Blitzboks as they begin preparing for the Olympic Sevens in Rio during August.
An extended SA Sevens training squad named a few days ago indicates that the Stormers could be the domestic Super Rugby franchise most crippled by absenteeism through Sevens call-ups over the course of the next few months.
If all of Cheslin Kolbe, Juan de Jongh, De Allende, Seabelo Senatla and recent recruit Cornal Hendricks significantly catch the eye of Blitzboks coach Neil Powell and are thus earmarked for Rio, you are suddenly stripping the Stormers team of just about its entire proven X-factor among outside backs.
All of them going to South America is highly unlikely, of course, given that various loyal Sevens specialists in recent years are bound to crack the nod for the Games and other Super Rugby sides are also offering some of their players, but Jones will nevertheless seldom be able to feel he has a “settled” Stormers squad at his disposal.
A bit of a “now you see them, now you don’t” sort of disruptive trend could take root at Newlands during 2016, which will hardly aid Jones’s quest to begin his tenure with a bang ...
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