Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Collective buy-in... that seems a key feature of
Stormers head coach Robbie Fleck’s quest to make his team a potentially title-challenging
factor in Super Rugby.
That might seem an obvious enough principle, but bear in
mind that the franchise have shed the services of immensely experienced,
core-personality Springbok icons in
recent times - Jean de Villiers, Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Burger just for
starters - which makes unity of purpose between the often more callow, unsung
troops left behind that crucial bit more important.
Before Saturday’s stirring, competition-opening 37-24
whipping of arch-rivals the Bulls at Newlands on Saturday, the Stormers looked
more than a bit threadbare for depth of resources in several positions.
Frankly, when I saw the starting line-up Fleck opted for in
the big derby, it even made me wonder whether to alter my prediction - never a
straightforward task on opening weekend - of a narrow home win to an away
triumph by a whisker instead.
His XV featured more than a few raw, pretty untested
combinations in important berths, and even the odd outright curveball... it was
something of a shock to see Wilco Louw listed at tighthead, for example, ahead
of likely Bok Test front-runner Frans Malherbe.
Fleck has also not been shy to tweak the roles of reasonably
established positional customers, like moving diminutive gasman Cheslin Kolbe
to right wing and installing the swerving, roving SP Marais at No 15.
And just about every aspect of his selection brew against
the Bulls then worked a very noticeable charm.
For one thing, Louw was eye-openingly assertive at
scrum-time (as was loosehead colleague JC Janse van Rensburg, another who may
have cracked the “first XV” nod only by a short head from big Ollie Kebble).
The picking of Louw above Malherbe, holder of 15 Bok caps,
had been justified by the coach beforehand as a reward for his “hard work
during pre-season” or words to that effect.
It also somehow
seemed an important statement by Fleck that holy cows won’t roam the lush turf of
Newlands too much this year -- a phenomenon that ought to keep many supposedly more
senior players on the staff firmly on their toes in consistency of performance
Gratifyingly, when Malherbe became an impact factor off the
bench in the second half, he similarly looked full of vigour and urgency, clearly
intent on not playing second fiddle at No 3 for long.
Kolbe has now featured brightly at No 14 in successive
matches, if you throw in the pre-season victory over the Lions a fortnight
earlier, seemingly revelling in greater opportunities to run clear of heavy
traffic and sometimes putting enormous pressure on back-tracking opposition
defenders through the blistering nature of his pace and pure desire to make a
huge nuisance of himself in that regard.
Remember that the gutsy little combatant has had several
worrisome, concussion-related incidents over the seasons in the last line of
defence where Marais, apart from his own elusive skills, offers that bit more
The Stormers also appear to have unearthed a new gem in
debutant outside centre EW Viljoen, a gangly, versatile footballer who
apparently tips the scales at over 100kg - the franchise have occasionally been
a little lightweight before when it comes to their outside backs.
Again, I had initially fancied Dan du Plessis might occupy
the Juan de Jongh vacancy in the No 13 shirt, but Viljoen came up huge trumps
on the night in both attack and defence against the Bulls.
Just as benefit-reaping was the decision to field Jean-Luc
du Plessis in the string-pulling flyhalf channel, when it had seemed a toss-up
between him and the slightly more “direct” and robust Robert du Preez for the
It was also a good start for the completely fresh leadership
alliance of Siya Kolisi and his deputy Eben Etzebeth, even if hearts might have
been some Newlands mouths when the (injury-jinxed, remember) former went down
clutching a shoulder with the game barely a minute old.
The mishap clearly little more than a “stinger”, Kolisi
instead got to his feet to play a suitably assertive personal game, whilst it
was educative to see the big enforcer Etzebeth, traditionally fairly
responsibility-shy, play a visibly assured and on-the-button role in aiding
several major decision-making requirements.
Quite probably feeling the invigorating effects of their
skills specialist, New Zealander Paul Feeney, the Stormers flummoxed the Bulls,
particularly in that rip-roaring first half, with their clever, sometimes
unorthodox running lines and the way they fanned out with a mixture of rugged
forwards and spring-heeled backs constantly at the ready to challenge the
hard-pressed visiting defence.
This was only round one and it would be foolhardy to read
too much too soon into Saturday’s extraordinarily up-tempo showing, but the
signs from the Stormers in terms of cerebral play and a sorely-needed flair for
the unexpected were very, very good.
The “two Fs”, Fleck and Feeney... it might just be worth
starting to make a little mental note of a budding strategic alliance at a franchise
not heaving with established superstars but clearly determined to create them.
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