Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – So who is going to finally straighten up that Stormers back division, stimulating a better likelihood of opportunities over the advantage line?
You could hardly blame several, hard-grafting members of their considerably better than useful pack if they’ve found dirty looks toward berths further out on the park hard to resist in Super Rugby 2018 thus far.
For a severely cash-strapped franchise supposedly trying to woo fans back behind them in large numbers with a renewed devotion to time-honoured “Province rugby” principles, there seems a certain holding pattern – and some would say that’s putting it kindly -- on their attack-focused philosophy.
Instead the collective industry, mobility and scrummaging prowess of their forwards has arguably been more responsible than anything for the command of pretty good field position a lot of the time after three rounds of matches for them.
At first glance of the offensive statistics, the Stormers’ try count isn’t too bad as they prepare for a fourth outing, against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday (08:35 SA time): 10 at a rate of just over three a game.
But 70 percent of those dot-downs have come from forwards, including an unusually high four to props (barrelling loosehead Steven Kitshoff is in the rare position at this fledgling stage of leading try-scorer with two).
Another key reason for their pretty unflattering start to the campaign (one win from three) is that “tries against” stands at a negative 13 – so more than four per match, even if the figure is obviously inflated by that nightmarish, open-sluices first 20 minutes against the Crusaders last weekend.
So the Stormers’ once-trumpeted defence is under re-emerging scrutiny … although not as much, I would venture, as the too lateral nature of their ball-in-hand play, especially among the three-quarters.
They are finding it painfully hard to forge meaningful gaps and overlaps, a situation hardly helped by a glaringly apparent lack of physical oomph in the very widest spots on the field.
At least the reunion in Dunedin on Friday of two Damians – rookie Willemse at flyhalf, more established De Allende at inside centre – brings some hope of vital extra punch in critical positions for attacking play.
The 19-year-old Willemse lost his sense of continuity in the No 10 jersey when he was forced to sit out the Christchurch match through injury and utility outside back Dillyn Leyds deputised there with no special success.
Considering his unusually raw age, the deft-footed Willemse needs every chance he can get for uninterrupted growth and learning in the unforgiving competition -- although that advantage will soon be threatened in a different way by the return to selection availability of Jean-Luc du Plessis, absent for what has seemed an eternity but reportedly back in full training back home.
The left-footed Du Plessis, only 23 himself, was making solid strides of his own in Super Rugby before his long-term hip and groin issues flared: he was good enough at the beginning of 2017 to be deemed ahead of now-departed Robert du Preez in the pivot pecking order.
Expected to reinforce the squad soon after their return from the primary overseas tour, Du Plessis will provide healthy competition and a slightly different skill set to Willemse. (If the latter is potentially that bit more mercurial, Du Plessis probably offers more at this point as an all-round game manager.)
That is why it is important for the young talent to put up at least a credible showing against the Highlanders, who field anything but a weak link in their No 10 shirt: the increasingly rounded All Black Lima Sopoaga.
But if the Stormers backline is to suddenly come to life as an offensive factor, De Allende, just outside Willemse at No 12, probably has no less important a role to play at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
There have been flashes of potency from De Allende so far in the season, though he is yet to really deliver a thunderous “full eighty” and still appears a little inconsistent in his option-taking and prone to lapses in concentration.
Such an exciting prospect some three years ago, the 26-year-old needs to become more “complete” again fairly smartly if he is not to continue slipping a little down the popularity charts for the Springbok inside centre berth in mid-year and beyond.
At least he has the slightly easier one-on-one task, on paper, than Willemse does in the Highlanders match: he is directly up against the considerably less Super Rugby-wise Teihoranga Walden, albeit that the Taranaki-born midfielder kick-started his 2018 with a bang, notching a brace of tries in the 41-34 disposal of the Blues.
Still, it is the sort of challenge De Allende could do with decisively winning …
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