Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Is there enough muscle to accompany the indisputable flair in the back three berths at the Stormers?
READ: Stormers rusty but good enough start
The answer, or at least much closer to a definitive one, might come on Saturday when the Waratahs, potentially boasting some contrastingly chunky specimens in those positions, entertain the Capetonians in their first of three Australasian tour matches in Super Rugby (Sydney Football Stadium, 10:45 SA time).
It shapes up as possibly the game the tourists have the likeliest shot at winning, partly because they will boast the obvious advantage of having played one tournament match already – the hard-earned 28-20 Newlands triumph over the Jaguares – whereas the ‘Tahs go in cold.
But it is also due in no small measure to the fact that the defending champion Crusaders in Christchurch, a week later, and then the Highlanders in Dunedin, are likely to be heavily favoured to prevail in each instance against Robbie Fleck’s already injury-bedevilled charges.
The Waratahs are a regrouping bunch this season, considering how awful the 2014 champions were in the 2017 campaign, effectively ending 16th overall out of the then-18 teams.
So why wouldn’t the Stormers spiritedly target them for what would still amount to a minor upset in Sydney?
Part of the Waratahs’ rebirth drive will be enforced by the departures of stalwarts like the lock pair Will Skelton (to Saracens) and Dean Mumm (retired), plus midfield yeoman servant Rob Horne (Northampton).
But they have picked up staunch Wallabies second-rower Rob Simmons from the Reds and, like the other existing Aussie franchises in Super Rugby, one or two players from the axed Western Force.
There is also a strong likelihood that they will still be in a healthy position to target the Stormers physically in the back-three area, where there is X-factor aplenty on attack from the likes of Seabelo Senatla, Raymond Rhule and Dillyn Leyds – evident often enough against the Jaguares – but also the potential for “difficulties” when big units are running hard at them.
Oft-maligned Springbok discard Rhule had an especially bright debut for his new outfit on Saturday, excelling in both an offensive and defensive capacity, but sterner (and notably beefier) challenges lie ahead for the trio than they received from their Argentinean counterparts last weekend.
There were also some unsatisfactory occasions under pressure for the home trio, collectively scrawnier than most in the competition, like Leyds being barged out of a couple of challenges for high-ball receipts and Senatla continuing to show his positional and other forms of inexperience in the fifteens game.
Put those gremlins down to rustiness, perhaps, but at the same time they will need to be more precise and physically committed when they encounter the Waratahs, quite likely to field at least two juggernauts in their own back three.
Unless the versatile footballer is drafted into the outside centre role, the 103kg, 1.93m Israel Folau should be the home team’s fullback, and one of the wing slots occupied by that Fijian-born human steamroller Taqele Naiyaravoro, who tips the scales at a formidable 124kg or thereabouts.
Remarkably, the enormous specimen has reportedly actually dropped some 12kg, in rigorous pre-season training, from 136kg.
None of the current, first-choice back three of the Stormers come remotely close to those sort of tale-of-tape stats, even if individual duels and matches, of course, aren’t automatically won on the bathroom scales.
It will be interesting to see whether Fleck and his lieutenants decide to consciously “bulk up” out wide to try to ease the threat posed by Naiyaravoro and company, even if alternative options are limited.
Tall, versatile JJ Engelbrecht is a possibility on one of the wings, and there might be some thought also to introducing SP Marais at fullback after his delayed start to the campaign due to a toe injury – not that he necessarily helps muscle up or heighten the department markedly.
Marais left South Africa with the travelling Stormers party, suggesting he can’t be far away from the green light for action, and he also gives the place-kicking department a boost: well as he mostly fared against the Jaguares, flyhalf prodigy Damian Willemse is less than a truly recognised place-kicker.
The Stormers will name their team on Thursday.
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