Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Let’s write off the tour from hell and fiercely refocus,
after the timely bye week, on our remaining roster back in South Africa.
Do you think there’s a chance Stormers coach Robbie Fleck
has said, or strongly hinted, such words to his embattled charges - or the
inner circle of them - in New Zealand? That it is at very least a thought
bubbling temptingly in his mind?
If there is any accuracy at all to my theory, I wouldn’t
blame Fleck if he has taken that kind of longer-term view of things after three
successive losses, including two unexpectedly wide-margined ones already in the
Land of the Long White Cloud.
Having leaked 50-plus points on the overseas trek to both of
the Crusaders and Highlanders and with the traditionally extrovert Hurricanes
the next opponents in Wellington on Friday (09:35 SA time), you are going to
get very long odds on the visitors prevailing in the Cake Tin.
The Stormers, give them their due despite the tough present
times, won’t simply run up an automatic white flag in the tour-closer, but it
is almost impossible not to surmise that their brains trust have shifted,
consciously or subconsciously, to the idea of crucially regaining winning ways
more realistically on home soil.
It was never going to be an easy tour – in fact, arguably their
least favourable ever on paper – and with two thumpings already suffered, a
meaningful turnaround somehow seems infinitely more likely back at Newlands,
and other SA venues, rather than beginning at daunting Westpac Stadium.
Remember that the Stormers do still hold the aces fairly
convincingly in Africa Conference 1, with a 12-point lead over the Bulls who
nevertheless boast a game in hand.
Fleck will also know that the current Bulls, even at home,
will be producing something of an upset if they can topple the unbeaten
Crusaders at Loftus on Saturday, so the gap may well stay roughly the same at
the top of the pool after the latest round, assuming that the unusually
rookie-laden Stormers side revealed on Wednesday have come a cropper to the
They could then clean the slate, as it were, and do plenty
of necessary soul-searching in the welcome fortnight before they entertain
another NZ outfit, the Blues, in Cape Town on Friday May 19.
That could well be a pivotal fixture, either dramatically
imperilling their chances of staying top of the group, or being a turning point
where they recapture the kind of mojo that saw them overcome the Chiefs so
inspiringly just a few weeks ago.
By that game, Fleck will undoubtedly wish to have as close
as possible to an “A-team” available once more, after a debilitating sequence
of injuries that have hardly helped the tottering cause in New Zealand.
Maybe I am guilty of over-interpreting, but I found it
interesting that the Stormers appear to have picked a team for the Hurricanes
clash that is arguably even more diluted than is forced on them anyway by the
various treatment-table issues.
For example, it seems strange that in a tight five seemingly
as Super Rugby caps-shy as any they have put out in the competition’s history,
someone like burly loosehead Oli Kebble – reasonably assertive by my card in
Dunedin – is confined to the bench this week as a ring-rusty Ali Vermaak vaults
back into the run-on XV.
After flying him out in a hurry following his own
rehabilitation from injury, is it significant also that hard-man loose forward
Rynhardt Elstadt, who would provide much-needed clean-out ferocity at ruck
time, instead doesn’t get a gig at all in Wellington?
My sense is he is being preserved instead for a less risky
return to action in two weeks’ time.
Then think about the invaluable senior locks, Eben Etzebeth
and Pieter-Steph du Toit (the latter has seen emergency service at No 7 of
late): both flew home ahead of the ‘Canes match, even if it is understood they carry
woes a little closer to “niggles” than outright injuries.
If I were a betting man, I’d say one or both will reappear
for the first game back at Newlands.
In the starting line-up named for Wellington, only one
positional combination remains wholly unaltered from last week in Dunedin – the
back three comprising SP Marais, Cheslin Kolbe and Dillyn Leyds.
Yes, I do suspect there are bigger issues at play for the
Stormers as they weigh up Friday’s difficult date.
That bigger picture, you might say, is the more beatable Blues,
one challenge further up the drag for them …
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