Stormers may require Pieter-Steph's 'kindness'

    2020-01-09 14:30

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town - Life without Eben Etzebeth ... it is going to be a strange feeling, at least initially, for the Stormers this year.

    The big-unit lock enforcer with those demonic eyes when someone is brave (foolhardy?) enough to poke the bear had been part of the Newlands furniture at Super Rugby level between 2012 and 2019.

    An eight-season tenure for this undoubtedly blue-chip player: you have to label that pretty good going for a franchise that has been mired in financial woe for several years.

    So it was almost inevitable that arguably one of the most sought-after players on the global scene would eventually be snapped up by an entirely richer overseas outfit - in his case the serious bigwigs of Toulon.

    Perhaps the one small comfort over Etzebeth’s departure - many other SA sides in Super Rugby face regrowth challenges after mass exoduses of players abroad, sadly - for John Dobson’s charges is that they have often enough had to go long periods without him in the second row anyway.

    The way the cookie has crumbled over several years has been that whenever Etzebeth, now 28, has gone weeks or months on the injured list, it’s been more often than not during the Super Rugby phase of the season.

    He has had a much clearer run in national colours ... going a long way to explaining his superior tally of Test caps (85), since his twin Super Rugby and Test debut season of 2012, to ones for the Stormers.

    Nevertheless, just having Etzebeth on their books and often enough demonstrating his robust, combative qualities for them in a No 4 jersey was a major fillip for the Stormers in an era stretching back to Allister Coetzee’s usually win-heavy tenure as head coach.

    He is the type of lock who instinctively hates taking a backward step, and who famously announced himself on the first-class scene, despite his callowness at the time, with that YouTube-popular trampling of juggernaut Bok hooker and Sharks favourite Bismarck du Plessis while carrying the ball fiercely in a Newlands derby.

    There is the reasonable comfort of knowing that the Capetonians, even with the enormous Etzebeth void this season, still boast reasonably good depth and quality in the second row with JD Schickerling, Salmaan Moerat and Chris van Zyl front of mind as options and adaptable characters (scope at both loose forward and lock) like Cobus Wiese and Ernst van Rhyn too.

    Towards the end of their largely fruitless 2019 season, the Stormers also revealed a surprise package when their resources were stretched in the shape of lean but spring-heeled young David Meihuizen.

    The 24-year-old, Calvinia-born Schickerling is still believed to be high on the radar of World Cup-winning Bok coach and now more specifically director of rugby Rassie Erasmus as a future Bok regular, although he has already had a few major injury scares.

    Much the same applies to Moerat, the former SA Schools captain, whose earliest first-class experience has been quite lukewarm although big things will be hoped of the soon to be 22-year-old if he has an uninterrupted 2020 campaign; he is a natural “front” lock and has the physical proportions to do the sort of chores Etzebeth prided himself on.

    But all this still leaves an inescapable thought, maybe even one that new head coach Dobson shares: the best lock at Newlands (and frankly at either four or five) may well currently be World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit.

    Yes, and that despite his choice for that distinguished global mantle on the grounds of his consistently stirring performances for the Boks at RWC 2019 in Japan as converted, now largely fulltime blindside flank.

    Du Toit understandably now wishes to specialise in a berth he has worked so hard and brilliantly to master the skills of after a tough initial period in his transition from a highly-regarded second row factor; remember that he had already won numerous international caps as a lock before the switch.

    Certainly from the outset of Super Rugby 2020 (the Stormers open on February 1 with a crackerjack home date with the Hurricanes) it seems massively likely that the unobtrusive Swartlander, a willing team man, will wear No 7 and share Stormers side-of-scrum duty with his Test colleague and captain Siya Kolisi.

    They will want to keep prize asset Du Toit happy, and that contentedness clearly will be as a flanker.

    But where things could get interesting is the bend in the road where, at some point in the always arduous campaign, lock staffing potentially becomes problematic through injury or fatigue.

    It is then that Dobson may well be sparked into talking nicely, as it were, to Du Toit about the possibility of agreeing to help out again in the heat of the tight five - remember that the franchise have a relative abundance of loosies.

    While he has tended to be preferred in a No 5 capacity, former Bok coach Heyneke Meyer is just one good judge who always believed Du Toit could double as a front-lock toughie; he ticks plenty of the boxes, not least his own under-rated mongrel even as red mist is not really his customary hallmark.

    Knowing the player’s reputation, it would be a surprise if he put his foot down and said an intransigent “thanks, but no thanks” if implored to aid the lock department in a crisis.

    Wherever he is stationed for the Stormers, and it will primarily be at No 7, Du Toit is going to be a key figure, requiring deft management in his workload …

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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