Losing three members of the Springbok World Cup winning pack would appear to be a crippling blow for the Stormers’ quest to win Super Rugby, but the timing of it may actually turn into a blessing in disguise.
Salt was rubbed into the Stormers’ wounds following their upset 33-14 loss to the Blues at the weekend when it was learnt that Pieter-Steph du Toit, the reigning World Rugby Player of the Year, will be joining fellow World Cup winners Siya Kolisi and Bongi Mbonambi on the sidelines for a significant part of the regional competition.
It is understood that Du Toit will be out for about eight weeks after undergoing surgery to a heamatoma on his left thigh. Kolisi is out for another few weeks, and there have been suggestions it might even be slightly longer than that, while Mbonambi’s hamstring injury was serious enough, and the operation complicated enough, to possibly rule him out of the rest of the Super Rugby season and beyond that into the initial part of the new international season.
It means that after starting the season with five starting Bok forwards, the Stormers now have only two survivors in Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe. Given the physical game the Stormers play, supporters should be anxiously holding thumbs hoping that one of those two don’t soon join the injury list.
The Stormers’ physical approach, the resultant attrition rate and the inevitable fatigue effect begs the question - is the Stormers’ approach sustainable for Super Rugby? And that inspires the theory that the injuries may actually work for the Cape side. Of course the contention that it could work has one big caveat. The Stormers need to do enough to win their conference and get into the Super Rugby play-offs, something that is no longer the likelihood it was assumed to be.
But if they do make it into the finals series, having their World Cup winners available could just end up overriding the concerns that they may have made a mistake by applying the Bok template designed to win a seven match World Cup campaign to what would be an 18 match Super Rugby campaign.
The concern about applying the Bok power game to Super Rugby is not that it can’t be effective. As the Stormers showed in one of the rare occasions last year when they were at full strength against the Crusaders, being on a test match footing for specific games can work. It is the sustainability of that model over 18 matches that is questionable.
Although it seems unlikely, Stormers coach John Dobson has said that Mbonambi could be available again after the three match tour of Australasia. If that was the case, and Du Toit returns on schedule before the end of that tour and Kolisi is back in the mix and motivated, then the Stormers could find themselves having the use of their big game players when they need them most.
The five months of Super Rugby is a long time to expect the physical imperative that drove the Boks to the World Cup to be sustained, but three matches at the end of the competition, at what is rightly called the business end of the competition, could work in the same way as it did for Kolisi’s national team in Japan.
Getting the Stormers into that position without them will be an exacting challenge, but they do have four wins from their first five matches. And while it would be sacrilege to suggest someone like Du Toit could be replaced in an effective way, because like former Stormers and Bok star Schalk Burger he is three or four players rolled into one, the Stormers do have passable alternatives.
On the face of it, Cobus Wiese is the best replacement for Du Toit as he brings physical and other attributes to the No 7 jersey that many franchises would bend over backwards to acquire. When he gets his momentum up, Wiese is an influential physical presence and has an international future ahead of him.
Listing Wiese’s attributes in a way though inspires a second take on using Wiese at blindside flank. For after the defeat to the Blues, before we knew about Du Toit’s injury, an argument was being prepared for him to play at lock. And maybe he still should, with Du Toit’s younger brother Johan wearing the No 7 until Kolisi returns in a couple of weeks (the Bok captain is better suited to blindside than openside).
The Stormers are blessed with rich second row resources, but the one thing they may lack is the enforcer and the driving presence that Eben Etzebeth was when he was playing for them. Etzebeth was often injured during the Super Rugby season, which partly explains why the Stormers never really did justice to the names on the squad lists released in the pre-season, but when he was he provided something that the Stormers now lack.
Salmaan Moerat, JD Schickerling and Chris van Zyl are all good locks but none of them provides the grunt that Etzebeth did. Moerat appears to be trying to take on that role, but it is not one he assumed for himself during his school or junior rugby career. The former national age-group captain has played well this season but Wiese might be better suited to the role he is being asked to fulfil.
Dobson has two weeks to think about it because his team is on a bye this weekend but he needs to find the answers quickly as the games they play after they get back, away to the Sharks and then the Jaguares, will go a long way towards deciding the strength of their challenge for conference honours.
When Dobson said after the Blues game that the defeat was a wake-up call for the team there was an implication that it was for him too, and he cannot dally any longer over the need to expand his depth in certain positions, most notably hooker. Scarra Ntubeni is the recognised first choice in the absence of Mbonambi but what happens if he is injured? Dobson needs to look further than Chad Solomons, and if Rikus Pretorius is going to come through as the midfield star he is expected to be, he has to be given Super Rugby game time sometime soon too.
Talking of midfield, Dan du Plessis is fit again too. Plenty of options, but those options require game time if the depth in certain positions is to be meaningful in the decisive weeks of the season.
Read this story on SuperSport.com