Stormers critically low on options in last line of defence
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
The Stormers started 2020 lean on fullback resources … and suddenly the cupboard looks even barer.
Confirmation by head coach John Dobson that Dillyn Leyds, his most experienced specialist in the berth by some distance, is off to La Rochelle in France – effectively meaning his tenure at Newlands has almost certainly ended already – leaves the franchise with unusual vulnerability in the important berth.
Indeed, there will be plenty of Stormers diehards ruing the very recent development that veteran dynamo Gio Aplon, once a real crowd-pleaser at the ground, is returning to South Africa … but in the fold of arch-rivals the Bulls.
The 37-year-old from Hawston, only some 100km from Cape Town, was a staunch servant of Stormers/WP rugby for a generous period between 2005 and 2014 before moving abroad.
But new Bulls mastermind Jake White effectively got in first (if there were any thoughts at all of a nostalgic comeback more southward) by snapping up Aplon for a swansong phase back on South African soil.
It leaves the Stormers squad with no proven, obvious specialist at No 15 to plug the Leyds gap: the 27-year-old had also been a valuable asset with his flair and nous over a solid period at Super Rugby level for them between 2015 and the current, coronavirus-disrupted campaign.
Last season, then-coach Robbie Fleck could at least pick from all of 10-cap Springbok Leyds, SP Marais and Craig Barry for the position, but Marais – who was also a trusty part of place-kicking plans – then switched loyalty to Canon Eagles in Japan, while Barry is now on the books of the Cheetahs.
Should the revamped, South African all-domestic version of Super Rugby kick in some time in the next few weeks (although it looks like being well behind both New Zealand and Australian initiatives in that respect), Dobson will wrestle a thorny problem at fullback.
He is left, in his current extended squad, with only untried rookie David Kriel, the 21-year-old former SA U20 player from Potchefstroom, as a dedicated representative on paper in the role.
This raises the strong likelihood that he may, instead, have to press versatile Damian Willemse – who had hoped to settle into solid service at flyhalf this season – into duty in his “second” role again.
Willemse, who was struggling to put a major stamp on things at pivot in the first few matches of the curtailed Super Rugby campaign, had already been asked to play there in the last game before the cut: the 24-14 derby defeat to the Sharks in Durban.
Jean-Luc du Plessis was restored to the No 10 jersey for that occasion.
While he might have mixed feelings about becoming a bit of a yo-yo man again, the hot-stepping Willemse, just turned 22, has been stationed at No 15 by Rassie Erasmus in each of his two Bok starts so far: against England at Twickenham in late 2018 and again when the Boks played minnows Canada at RWC 2019 in Kobe.
While there are plenty of observers who believe Willemse’s dazzling brand of attacking play may be best suited to the wider space available from the back, remember that the Stormers aren’t exactly bursting with seasoned flyhalves either.
Du Plessis had been dogged by injuries ahead of the 2020 season and then left the field early again in the bruising Sharks clash in March, while another useful pivot from the previous year, Josh Stander, has subsequently also hooked up with a Japanese club.
So the Stormers are quite threadbare for depth at both Nos 10 and 15, although Dobson probably has plenty of weeks yet to mull over the predicament before any resumption …
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