Pretoria - Unless something has changed from what appeared to be the case at the start of the week, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck faces an interesting dilemma when it comes to the important back three combination for Saturday’s Super Rugby derby against the Bulls.
At the start of the build-up week to the big north/south Easter Saturday showdown at Loftus, JJ Engelbrecht and Dillyn Leyds were back in training, as was SP Marais, who was practising his long range place-kicking afterwards, according to supersport.com website.
All three missed the 25-19 win over the Reds because of injury but on Monday they were considered to be back in the selection mix.
That has created something of a rags to riches scenario for Fleck as he prepares to name his team for the Loftus clash as it means he is going to have to leave out a top player whereas in previous weeks he’s been forced to juggle his back three, often at the last minute.
It has been one of those seasons for the Stormers where they’ve almost made a habit of being visited by misfortune in the training week. It started before the opening match against the Jaguares, when first choice hooker Bongi Mbonambi had to undergo an emergency appendectomy on the eve of the game, continued with fullback Marais suffering a knock in training while overseas. The most recent late withdrawal was Engelbrecht, who pulled out late last week with a haematoma that wasn’t quite coming right as quickly as had been hoped.
That forced a reshuffle to a back three that had already been reshuffled. Craig Barry, who a few weeks ago was playing PRO14 for the Cheetahs on loan, had been selected at fullback but with the Stormers finding themselves down on wings (Engelbrecht was joining Seabelo Senatla and Sergeal Peterson on the injured list), the decision was taken to shift Barry to the wing and bring in George Whitehead at fullback.
It cost the Stormers some continuity but the move paid off against the Reds, with Barry showing just how much he has improved as an all-round player by producing some touches that on occasion bordered on astonishing. He was a constant threat on attack, but his little stab kick that stood up for Raymond Rhule, the other wing, in the left corner, was the icing on the cake.
No-one has ever doubted Barry’s abilities. The decision to let one of the stars of last year’s successful SuperSport Challenge campaign for Western Province go to the Cheetahs was made so that he could get game time and iron some of the rough edges out of his game. On the evidence of last Saturday, Barry has done that and is ready to challenge for a more regular place in the Stormers’ plans, either as a wing or as a fullback.
His fielding of the high ball was also good last week which makes him a contender for the last line of defence, but the Stormers also have Marais and Leyds contending for that position. Leyds certainly adds an attacking dimension and an element of unpredictability from the back, as he showed against the Blues, when he must have come close to winning the man of the match award.
But Marais has a superb offload game and with the length of his place-kicking boot being matched by that of his field kicking boot, Fleck is right to consider him his first choice fullback when he is available. Marais was one of the Stormers’ best backs, behind only Damian de Allende, on the New Zealand leg of the overseas tour.
Returning Marais to fullback for the Loftus match though will mean two players from a wing quartet that includes Engelbrecht, Barry, Leyds and Raymond Rhule will have to miss out on a place in the starting team. Leyds is not a player who can be left out of the team, so the choice is probably between Engelbrecht, who was good against the Blues and has the size that could be crucial against the Bulls formidable back three, and Rhule.
The latter was the Springbok incumbent for most of last season but lost his place towards the end of the year because of his poor defence and it is the perception that he is a poor defender that had many wondering about the wisdom of WP recruiting him from the Cheetahs.
However, while the question marks over his defence remain, and there have been some misses that Rhule would want to forget about, he has also produced some moments of magic since swopping the white jersey of the Cheetahs with the blue of the Stormers. He has been the one constant in the Stormers back three this year, and if you listen to Stormers assistant coach Paul Feeney sing his praises, it doesn’t sound like he will be dropped in a hurry.
“With Raymond there is a bit of an element of risk and reward about his play sometimes, but he has added a lot of flair and he is super professional with the way he goes about things,” said Feeney.
“He does great research and he has a remarkably professional approach. People do go on a bit about his defence but he is working on all areas of his game and I do think it is a bit harsh when you get lambasted for missing Waisake Naholo or Rieko Ioane. They are among the best attacking players and it is not as if it is unusual for them to run through opposition players.”
Feeney was also pleased with Barry’s contribution last week, describing the kick that set up the Rhule try as “a perfect little bit of decision making”, and added that he was “pleased with the way the boys are looking at those types of kicks, that is what we need from them”. But he also agreed that the lack of continuity in the back three might be inhibiting the Stormers’ attack potential.
“It is difficult and it makes it more difficult when you have a late withdrawal, as was the case with JJ last Friday. I was saying to someone the other day that we would have a really good injured backline, with SP, Dillyn, Jean Luc (Du Plessis) etc, but you have to concentrate on the people you have and not the people you don’t have and I thought that (individually) the guys did well last week.”