Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - If Stormers coach Allister Coetzee’s upbeat statements of late are any indication, he may have a rookie ace up his sleeve at loosehead prop this season ... or at least believes he has.
The ever-ambitious, but still title-shy Super Rugby franchise found themselves rather wanting for cover in the No 1 jersey last year, a situation that extended into the Currie Cup season as Western Province eventually surrendered their 2012 crown to fierce coastal rivals the Sharks.
The big spanner in the works was veteran Springbok journeyman Deon Carstens, who had become the comforting main deputy to customary first choice Steven Kitshoff, retiring as early as April because of a persistent back injury.
As a result, the barrel-chested Kitshoff ended up playing far more games - including plenty of full ones - throughout the year than was ideal for a player in such a physically demanding position.
Despite his undoubted promise, it was almost inevitable that at some point he would lose his mojo a bit, and after a narrow victory over Griquas in Kimberley, when the WP scrum played noticeable second fiddle, forwards coach Matthew Proudfoot unusually saw fit to publicly criticise Kitshoff and urge greater consistency from him.
Debatable though the move was, it did seem to have the desired effect of firing up the redhead anew as Province advanced to a home final.
It is hard to believe that the former Paul Roos front-ranker and Baby Boks star is still only 21 (he turns 22 in mid-February) as he began his first-class career at Newlands as a mere 18-year-old three years back and almost seems a veteran of the engine room - even with his best years quite likely to still lie ahead.
With no Carstens from the outset of the Super Rugby slog this time, the Stormers must have been tempted to enter the “transfer” market to potentially ease the burden on Kitshoff for 2014.
After all, they are now glaringly without proven, specialist experience (either at Super Rugby or Currie Cup level) in back-up terms at loosehead should any mishap strike the incumbent.
It is an area where the Sharks, for instance, can feel a little more confident should Tendai Mtawarira require time out from the game because someone like Dale Chadwick, who boasts plenty of Currie Cup acumen and is also in double figures for Super Rugby caps, can deputise if necessary.
The Stormers seem well-stocked in the other front row positions: Tiaan Liebenberg and Scarra Ntubeni should be main competitors at hooker with tenacious open-side flank Deon Fourie also well capable of revisiting No 2 in a crisis, and there are two Springboks at tighthead in Frans Malherbe and Pat Cilliers.
Cilliers and another hard-working, versatile customer in Brok Harris can be employed at loosehead, at a push, but both are infinitely more comfortable and educated on the other side.
Which begs the question: what’s left for the Stormers in “proper” No 1s?
It is a topic this writer put to Coetzee at a media briefing during their pre-season camp in the Overberg, and he would not hear of the implication - intended! - that they may be under-staffed in the berth.
“No, there’s no issue at loosehead at all: we’ve got Oliver Kebble who is looking really good; I am very pleased with his progression. Then there is also Alistair Vermaak.”
Plenty of observers will be especially fascinated by Coetzee’s optimism over the 128kg Kebble, who comes from fine stock as he is the son of the behemoth Springbok and former WP and Sharks loosehead Guy.
PE-born Vermaak is a bit older at 24 and has played three seasons of Varsity Cup rugby for Maties, suggesting that a sudden burst to prominence in Super Rugby 2014 is fairly unlikely, albeit that stranger things have happened.
But Kebble - only 21, like Kitshoff for a couple more weeks - could just be an intriguing wildcard this year.
He has been cutting his teeth most recently in John Dobson’s formidable, trophy-winning WP U21 side, and one thing Coetzee has a happy knack of getting right for the Stormers or WP is not being afraid to pluck players from the junior ranks if he feels they are ready and then often seeing them blossom.
Could Kebble be the latest?
It would make life just a bit less burdensome for Steven Kitshoff, if so ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing