Cape Town - A clutch of Stormers first-choice players will be under pressure to match the marker set by the challengers for their positions on Superhero Sunday when they make their first appearance of the new season against the Boland Cavaliers on Friday.
The annual clash between the Stormers and Boland is the last warm-up game ahead of the Super Rugby season that starts with a trip to Pretoria to face the Bulls the following weekend. It will also be the seasonal debut for most of the first-choice combinations after the Springboks and some other players were given another week to get themselves ready to play again after an arduous and bruising 2018 season.
Stormers coach Robbie Fleck told SuperSport.com he has a pretty good idea what his starting team will look like at Loftus on February 16, but he admitted that some fringe players have given him something to think about during the pre-season phase and particularly after his "B" team's gritty win over the Bulls at Cape Town Stadium over the weekend.
"I obviously don't want to mention names but there are guys who have really pleased and surprised me and who are now pressing strongly for positions in the starting team," said Fleck.
The Stormers were clinical in punishing Bulls mistakes in the first half, which was played amidst an electric atmosphere in front of 55 000 people, and quickly ran up a 21-0 lead. Fleck was pleased with the way his team capitalised on the Bulls errors and made the most of their opportunities.
"So much of modern rugby is about getting the transition between defence and attack right and I felt we did that well in this game. For that matter, so did the Bulls," said the Stormers coach.
"But I was also happy with what came after that. The Bulls came back at us strongly, and in the second half we had to defend for long periods and we were really tested in that department. That was another big plus for us."
It was indeed, and the Stormers showed great tenacity in holding on when the Bulls were attacking when they had a lead and were looking to extend it. Then the young team that was selected for the game, well led by Chris van Zyl, impressed with the way they came back to win it, with the skipper himself scoring the clincher.
The 33-28 win was the perfect panacea, even if temporary, for the ills that have beset Western Province Rugby, and the way the Stormers players celebrated afterwards sent out an interesting message and warning to their opponents in Super Rugby - maybe, just maybe, all the off-field ructions have drawn the players together and made their more determined.
Fleck described the players as "fed up" when interviewed on the Friday before the game and the frustration they are feeling was already no secret. Perhaps getting on to the field, and playing their hearts out for each other in the knowledge that this may well be the last season together for this group of players, is the perfect release from the off-field tensions.
It is understood the players will take their dealings with the union, and their fight for certain demands to be met - the board has been given until Friday to respond to demands made at an emergency meeting with the WP leadership last Monday - forward through player union representation. That should clear them to focus on the task at hand, which is to do well in Super Rugby.
For Fleck, the most important thing is that there is depth coming through, as was shown in the win over the Bulls, and for once he has an almost fully fit squad ready for the new season. Friday night's encounter in Wellington will complete the process of getting all the players ready.
"A lot of the first-choice guys have been held back as they started training later (because of the Bok tour) but we will want them to get a game behind them before Super Rugby and the Boland game is the last opportunity for us," said Fleck.
He said the competition for places was healthy for his squad and improved the quality of training.
"It's only healthy for our group that the players stepped up (against the Bulls). It's good to see that we've built depth. It gives us a lot of energy and confidence knowing we could match them‚ especially in the first half.
"It's certainly good for our youngsters‚ not a lot of them have played against players of that calibre or in front of a crowd of almost 50 000. We've been trying to build this team over the last four years‚ and this will certainly give us confidence. It was a really great outing for us.
"The big difference between this year and last year is last year we didn't have much big competition in the group (because of injuries). This year we do‚ and it improves our training sessions so much‚ so hopefully we’ll play better."
One problem area for the Stormers against the Bulls was an old one - the lineouts. But Fleck was philosophical about that, remarking that Bulls behemoth lock Lood de Jager is "a hard man to throw over" and reminding the media that the Bulls, who were pretty close to full strength, had one of the most efficient lineouts in Super Rugby last year.
Although he battled to find his jumpers, hooker Scarra Ntubeni was all over the field in general play and featured in the build up to a few of the tries scored. He will be capable back-up for Bok Bongi Mbonambi, if indeed he doesn't push Mbonambi for his starting place.
Another battle looming between a Bok and a supposed fringe player is at No 8. Sikhumbuzo Notshe was outstanding and did some great things when he came on as a replacement, but the physical Juarno Augustus was equally good in his starting role. Notshe should be expected to start as he did play international rugby last year and is a current Bok, but if Augustus was to start a few games to lend his strength to the early physical combat, with Notshe coming off the bench to provide his silky touches later, it would sound make rugby sense.
READ the story on SuperSport.com