Stormers stay ‘light’ in front 3

    2014-05-28 12:44

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The Stormers will have to hope the combination of smart technique and tenacity again trumps sheer bulk in the front row when they meet the Sharks in a Super Rugby derby in Durban on Saturday (19:10 kick-off).

    It got them through comfortably and commendably enough against a reasonably behemoth Cheetahs starting trio despite the heavy conditions at Newlands last weekend: now their fairly lightweight combo tackles the expected might of the all-Springbok firm of Tendai Mtawarira and the Du Plessis brothers, Bismarck and Jannie.

    The Capetonian team, almost certainly, would dearly have loved to have been able to reinforce their boiler-room ranks with the suitably beefy young tighthead Frans Malherbe at Kings Park.

    For a few weeks now, they have patiently been awaiting – without any joy – the clearance of the emerging, now Test-capped No 3 after a concussion.

    Malherbe’s 124kg frame would have helped to rebalance the severely weakened Stormers front row in tale-of-the-tape terms against the title-challenging Sharks, but a media release after the Bok training camp on Wednesday confirmed that Malherbe was among a pretty large group of players who were predominantly onlookers at the Durban get-together.

    Certainly the wording of the statement did little to suggest the 23-year-old from Paarl is ready for fresh combat any time soon: “(Malherbe is) struggling with a significant concussion which he picked up in a Super Rugby game a few weeks ago ... he has not met the criteria of returning safely to playing.”

    Ironically Malherbe got his maiden Test start against Wales at the Millennium Stadium late last year, when the seasoned Du Plessis -- expected to anchor the Sharks scrum on Saturday -- was absent through injury, and stood his ground decently against old international fox Gethin Jenkins.

    His continued sidelining only aggravates the situation in the Stormers front row, where first-choice loosehead Steven Kitshoff (arguably a victim of unsubtle overplaying by the franchise) is a long-term casualty now and two pedigreed hookers in Scarra Ntubeni and the physical Tiaan Liebenberg are also still crocked.

    It has left them with a fairly newly-assembled alliance of rookie No 1 Alistair Vermaak, that handily versatile forward Deon Fourie at hooker, and good fill-in Pat Cilliers, an occasional Springbok, at tighthead.

    Against big Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss and company of the Cheetahs last Saturday, the trio stood their ground extraordinarily well, considering that all three are not the most mammoth customers you will ever see in their respective slots.

    Cilliers, himself not long back from injury, tips the scales at around 113kg, nippy and feisty Fourie just makes the 100kg mark and Vermaak comes in at around 110kg.

    That means that if they oppose the two robust Du Plessis units and the “Beast” on Saturday, they will concede not far off 30 kilograms in total in the front row, a pretty significant shortfall.

    Still, the best rugby brains will remind you that brawn isn’t everything and the truth is that the Stormers’ trio haven’t yet been exposed.

    Vermaak, the least experienced of the group, has done particularly well under the circumstances, not only being promisingly firm at scrum-time but making his tackles and getting fulsomely involved in clean-outs and the like too.

    It is perhaps also a tribute to the oft-maligned Stormers’ coaching panel that the franchise lies second only to the Lions for scrum success in the competition thus far if statistics are to be believed: it is a glowing state of affairs bearing in mind that the tight five as a whole seems to suffer enforced, disruptive personnel changes almost every round.

    Mind you, possibly the most acid test for the present front-row firm comes against the established, take-no-prisoners Bok threesome of the Sharks this weekend.

    Some comfort for the underdogs, perhaps, comes in the likelihood that the pitch should be firm and dry on Saturday, allowing the mobility of the visiting trio in general play to come into the equation even more than was the case at early-winter, tempestuous Newlands a week ago  ...

    *Both match-day teams are scheduled to be revealed on Thursday morning.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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