Gavin Rich - SuperSport.com
Cape Town - If the Stormers are to do justice to the depth they boast on paper and challenge for the Super Rugby trophy their biggest obstacle is the debilitating travel sickness that has blighted some of their most recent campaigns, the SuperSport.com website reports.
The Cape side finished a lowly 11th last year but their position on the final log and in the South African conference could have been very different had they just transported some of the form they boasted at Newlands into their away games. The Stormers won six of their eight games at home in 2018, and the losses were tight ones.
The defeat to the Chiefs was nip and tuck for much of the way, and they were unlucky to lose to the Lions, a game where there was a significant momentum shift when wing Raymond Rhule was red carded.
However, while the six wins, a 75 percent success rate, suggested Newlands was coming close to becoming a fortress for Siya Kolisi's men, those were the only wins they recorded in the season. And with many of their away games scheduled for earlier in the competition - they travelled to Australia in the second week - that meant they were playing catch-up almost from the off and they were out of the competition not too far beyond the halfway point.
A SIMILAR FIXTURE LIST IN 2019
If you look at this year's fixture list, it is a similar story for the Stormers. Six away games in the first eight underlines the urgency for the Stormers to break their away bogey when they start their 2019 campaign against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday.
"Our away form last year does add extra significance to the need for us to start out with an away win at Loftus this year," agreed Stormers coach Robbie Fleck after the recent easy warm-up win over the Boland Cavaliers.
"We had a problem playing away last year. We did not win a single game away from Newlands. Obviously that is something that we need to address and will be looking to turn around this year because we know we can't challenge if we don't win away games. We have six away games in the first half of the competition. It’s imperative that we win away games if we want to compete."
One thing that is more in the Stormers' favour this year in comparison to 2018 is that they will have their first bye relatively early. Last year they never had a break until round nine, and then the last bye was in the final round. They start off with three tough derbies, with a home game against the Lions sandwiched in between trips to Pretoria and Durban, but then they have a week off before they host the Jaguars on the Ides of March.
Invoking the term most would remember from Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar is intentional, for you sense that March 15 is something of a mini-deadline day for the Stormers. If they are to move on with confidence, they do need to be healthy, and have some good wins under their belt, by the time the second half of March arrives. For that is when they travel to Australasia, and this year they play four games on tour as opposed to the three of last season.
CRUCIAL TO END NEW ZEALAND DROUGHT
They may draw some consolation from the fact that their two games in New Zealand are against the Hurricanes and the Blues. The latter team tends to be the weakest of the Kiwi challengers, and the Stormers boast a fair record against them, while the Hurricanes were the last team that the Stormers beat on New Zealand soil.
The caveat to that though is that it was a sod of a long time ago. It was in 2013 to be precise, since when the Stormers have lost 10 consecutive away games against New Zealand opposition. The closest they have come in that time was the one point defeat to the Blues the week after the 2013 win over the Hurricanes. Most of the Kiwi wins have been one-sided, and the Stormers have regressed a long way from where they were between 2010 and 2012, where they tended to have the rub over New Zealand teams regardless of where the games were played.
THEY HAVE THE PACK TO DO IT
The Stormers certainly have the playing depth this year to turn that around, most significantly where it should matter most - the pack. When at full strength the Stormers should be able to field six Bok forwards who you'd consider members of the current first-choice national match-day 23.
Steven Kitshoff, Bongi Mbonambi, Frans Malherbe, Eben Etzebeth, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Siya Kolisi should all be in Rassie Erasmus' preferred 23 for the World Cup games later in the year if they are all fit. And you can add to that list the names of Wilco Louw and Sikhumbuzo Notshe, who were also starting Boks on occasion in 2018. And the odd man out when it comes to capped Boks in the pack, JD Schickerling, is highly rated and toured with the Boks last November.
The first-choice Stormers pack, once Etzebeth is fit again, which should be pretty soon, and provided other players don't get injured in the meantime, should read like this: Kitshoff, Mbonambi, Malherbe, Etzebeth, Schickerling, Kolisi, Du Toit and Notshe. The development of Du Toit as an international blindside flank has helped the Stormers add depth at loose-forward, but there is a good player ready to step in if Du Toit is rested in the form of Cobus Wiese.
Some might also argue that Notshe could be pushed for his place at the back of the scrum by the prodigiously capable Juarno Augustus, who not long ago was the World Junior Player of the Year. At hooker there is also good cover in the form of Scarra Ntubeni, who is now over his injury problems and was man-of-the-match in the Stormers' exciting win over the Bulls on Superhero Sunday.
The Stormers might feel the loss of JC Janse van Rensburg when Kitshoff isn't fit, which may be this week, but Stormers forward coach Russell Winter has been singing the praises of the underrated Ali Vermaak, and then there is the one newcomer to the Stormers ranks this year, former Lions player Corne Fourie.
MIDFIELD STRENGTH TOO
The emergence of former Blitzbok Ruhan Nel as a possible Bok option at centre has added to the depth at the back, and it was interesting to note that Fleck played JJ Engelbrecht on the wing in some of the warm-up games. Sergeal Petersen, who has missed part of the warmup phase through injury, was excellent for Western Province in the Currie Cup, but Engelbrecht would solve a long time Achilles heel for the Cape team, which is lack of physical substance out wide.
Certainly as long as Damian de Allende and Nel are playing together there will be no lack of size in the midfield and they showed in the Wellington warm-up match that they could be the key to unlocking the Stormers’ attacking game. They weren’t up against much opposition, but they are both classy players and could be a handful for most opponents in the coming months. Add to those two the name of Engelbrecht, who has played international rugby as a centre, the highly promising and now properly fit Daniel du Plessis, EW Viljoen once he recovers from injury, and Dan Kriel, who showed good early season form, and the Stormers do boast plenty of midfield depth.
BUT HALFBACK REMAINS THE BIG QUESTION
The question mark, as it always is with the Stormers, is halfback - both scrumhalf and flyhalf. Jano Vermaak is a Springbok, or was one a few years back, and Herschelle Jantjies impressed in the Currie Cup. There is also Justin Philips. All of those are capable players but you fancy that Fleck will be holding thumbs that Vermaak loses his current habit of being injury prone, for his experience will be necessary at the base of the scrum if the Stormers are to go far in the competition.
With Damian Willemse set to play much of the campaign at fullback, Jean-Luc du Plessis will get a chance to establish himself in the No 10 jersey once he has shaken off any rust accumulated after a long injury enforced lay-off. Du Plessis is certainly a promising flyhalf, as indeed is Willemse, and Josh Stander learnt a lot in last year’s Currie Cup, but the coming months will tell if they are the match-winners in the No 10 jersey that the Stormers have been crying out for since…well almost since forever.
Of course, as always with the Stormers, or WP, you also have to factor in the possible effects of what might be happening off the field on their psyche. It has been a rough start to the rugby year in the Cape in terms of off-field ructions, and they have been well documented. So far the Stormers look like they have taken on a laager mentality, and are using their anger to drive their playing intensity.
Whether that will be sustained could depend on whether the weekend reports that the board (professional arm) have won their battle for control with the amateur arm, meaning that the off-field battle could be over, are proven correct.
Hopefully all the off-field noise will go away for the Stormers definitely have the playing material to at the very least win the South African conference, and their form in the warm-up games has been encouraging. It was 20 years ago, in another World Cup year, that the Stormers captured the imagination of Cape rugby fans in what will be remembered as the Men in Black campaign.
Coach Fleck, who will be ending his coaching stint with the Stormers at the end of this season, was part of that great season. He played in the Stormers midfield. What he wouldn’t give to see the clock rolled back two decades, with the difference being that this time his men go all the way...
Stormers 2019 fixtures:
February 16: Bulls (away)
February 23: Lions (home)
March 2: Sharks (away)
March 15: Jaguares (home)
March 25: Hurricanes (away)
March 30: Blues (away)
April 5: Reds (away)
April 12: Rebels (away)
April 20: Brumbies (home)
April 27: Bulls (home)
May 4: Jaguares (away)
May 18: Crusaders (home)
May 25: Highlanders (home)
June 1: Lions (away)
June 8: Sunwolves (home)
15 June 15: Sharks (home)
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