Cape Town – A few weeks ago, it looked
almost inevitable that new Springbok coach Allister Coetzee would be kindly disposed
toward Stormers players for his first national squad of the season to be
announced on Saturday.
Coetzee will be under pressure, as all
fresh appointees to the unforgiving green-and-gold role are, to hit the ground
running against Ireland in the three-Test home June series, and it is
frequently the norm for men in his position to “go with who they know”
initially before gradually embracing a more universal approach.
In his case, as head coach of that
franchise for a full six years until the end of 2015 – a period in which they
were the most consistently competitive South African side, even as the overall
title remained elusive – personal memories will still be fresh of the players
he tutored and styled to his way of doing battle.
Right up to the last three weeks or so,
too, he would have looked quite justified in pinning mass faith in
Capetonian-based stars for his initial plans -- much like Heyneke Meyer
unapologetically did at the outset of his tenure in 2012 when he gave generous
scope against England, in his maiden series, to Bulls players he was
comfortable and familiar with.
Before their not so merry month of May, the
Stormers were looking very solidly placed not only to make the quarter-final
cut but win Africa Conference 1, thus only underlining their reputation for
being possibly the toughest South African nuts – whatever their shortcomings in
an overall context -- to crack in the competition.
But with the Test season looming large,
that franchise have chosen a bad time to glaringly lose their mojo, to the
extent that if ordinary season ended today they would be goners, just outside
the quarter-final zone.
They are in the throes of their worst
period of the season, with no wins from three games and problematic
performances – even if in slightly varying ways -- against all of the Waratahs
(loss), Sunwolves (draw) and Bulls (loss).
Especially in the latter two matches, the
Stormers’ lack of attacking punch and finesse has been freshly apparent.
Apart from their now precarious
knockout-phase status, they currently lie fifth among the half-dozen SA sides
in the “tries for” column, with a mere 28 to show even if their concession
scorecard (19) is the best both domestically and overall. (If you wanted to be
cynical, you could say “what’s new there?”)
By contrast, the Lions have run in 48 often
handsomely-constructed tries – second only to the Chiefs competition-wide – and
dished up almost certainly the most progressive, watchable rugby of all the SA
teams which explains their premier spot in the race for the title from these
So the Stormers regressing into old, rather
crude and blind-alley habits, a phenomenon that also reared its head at times
during Coetzee’s tenure, will not make the broader domestic public and some
critics hugely partial right now to a strong Bok-squad show of confidence for
players from Cape climes.
Saturday’s events at Loftus, where the
Bulls ground out a deserved and precious 17-13 derby triumph, probably saw the
Bok prospects of certain Test “possibles” in the Stormers’ ranks dip a little
rather than stiffen.
While men like Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben
Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Damian de Allende and Juan de Jongh (albeit nursing a
hamstring problem at present) should be relative shoe-ins for the expanded
first national squad Coetzee will name, others who may have been considered
good tips to make the cut, given their prior associations with the coach, may
feel less secure about their chances now.
Into that category might fall Cheslin
Kolbe, the nippy, mercurial little fullback whose physical limitations
regrettably came to the fore anew at Loftus, and the two hookers on their books
who are among several candidates nationwide for the role, Bongi Mbonambi and
unravelling of the Stormers’ set-piece – both scrum and lineout – hardly helps
advance the claims of the latter two, does it?
Another area where the Newlands-based
outfit look rather at sixes and sevens is at the breakdown and in loose-forward
play more broadly, where Robbie Fleck has battled for some time to work out who
his best trio really are and which specific berths they are best suited to.
All of Nizaam Carr, Siya Kolisi and Schalk
Burger (it is still not clear if the Bok veteran wholeheartedly intends trying
to advance his tally of 86 caps, amassed since 2003) played second fiddle to a
fired-up Bulls collective of Lappies Labuschagne, Jannes Kirsten and Arno Botha
in the derby, even if a beaten front five also goes a long way to explaining
Burger at least produced a customary
bite-the-bullet sort of game, even when impeded by a troublesome ankle that he
hastily asked to have heavily strapped in the second half, but I felt that
Kolisi was particularly “AWOL” at times during the uncompromising tussle.
Kolisi is a highly talented rugby player,
and thrives in front-foot situations, but there is ongoing debate about whether
he is a better blind-sider or open-sider and the danger exists that the answer is
actually somewhere in between.
Bok starter against Ireland? Not for me, on
strictly 2016 evidence.
But even if Coetzee is inclined to slightly
trim his Stormers quota of players, bear in mind that two, now overseas-based
pack stalwarts of his era at Newlands could well still crack the nod: Duane
Vermeulen and Steven Kitshoff.
Their special qualities were rather missed
in Pretoria at the weekend …
our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing