Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – These are the reasons why I believe the Stormers MIGHT illuminate Super Rugby 2019:
The ‘end of an era’ motivation
WP Rugby is beset with multiple, potentially ruinous off-field problems ... that is well-documented and will naturally come up in part two of this feature.
But if - a mighty big “if”, I grant you - the Stormers playing and coaching staff alike are able to somehow cut through it all and be driven by a collective pride and bulldog determination in the face of adversity, this could yet be a productive year for them.
Granted, they have under-achieved when touted for much bigger things numerous times before, but 2019 may be different for the very reason that the players know a particular era is about to come to an end: a relative galaxy of their headline stars are out of contract once this year’s competition is wrapped up, and a World Cup year also tends to be one when various players feel a special lure of overseas employment possibilities immediately after the relevant RWC.
So, as they say in Afrikaans, it really is a case of “nou of nooit” for the current crop, who we broadly know do value each other’s company and representing the coastal franchise.
If they want to leave a rich enough legacy (and I have a nagging feeling many do, despite all the sideshows) they’ve simply got to rise considerably above mediocrity in 2019.
Attractive overseas tour
There are years where their record doesn’t reflect it, but the Stormers traditionally travel well (and of no small importance, contentedly).
So when they first perused their 2019 main overseas-leg itinerary, there was immediate reason to feel buoyed by the chance of a productive enough three-week mission.
We all know wins don’t grow on trees for SA sides abroad, but a playing order of Hurricanes – why not get the on-paper toughie out of the way first? – Blues, Reds and Rebels isn’t the most strenuous they’ve ever had in Australasia. Far from it, in fact.
The tour comes in mid-roster, which also seems a reasonable state of affairs, and when they get back (however they have fared) there is the comfort of successive Newlands matches against the Brumbies and Bulls.
Quality back-up in many berths
Helped by the fact that the youth pipeline in the Western Cape still pumps out high-quality individuals, the Stormers won’t lack for second-level staffing in most positions in the event of injuries (and likely rotations at times).
Go through their primary pool of 30 players, for example, and you could come up with a reserve team that would probably give the frontline XV a serious go if they ever played each other on a serious sort of level.
The Stormers seem particularly abundantly stocked in the second and back rows of the pack, for example, including several men who can switch seamlessly between both areas if required to do so: naturally the gifted Pieter-Steph du Toit jumps straight to front of mind with his capabilities in any of a four, five or seven shirt.
Indeed, a bit of a challenge for head coach Robbie Fleck and company will be keeping everyone in the squad suitably busy, match-conditioned and motivated to jump to service when or if summoned; there is the risk of a “passenger syndrome” taking root in some instances.
Most of the Springbok pack!
It will bring some pressures with it ... perhaps and then some, given that a World Cup and a heightened scramble for international places lies ahead.
But the fact remains that the Stormers, at least as things stand, boast the very nucleus of the Springbok forward arsenal.
Loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff is battling fiercely with Tendai Mtawarira for the Bok No 1 jersey, Bongi Mbonambi stays high in the Test pecking order at hooker, and both Frans Malherbe and Wilco Louw ought to stay well up the tighthead priority list as well.
Eben Etzebeth, now in his eighth year as a Stormers/WP player, is well rooted to the Bok front lock job, and as rumours inevitably swirl that he will finally be coaxed to cash-flush European climes (Toulon) after this year’s Super Rugby, he should be fired-up to go out with a flourish.
Remember that this competition has often represented an injury jinx to him, so a trouble-free 2019 campaign would be welcome to both the player and management.
Meanwhile 2018’s stellar Du Toit (just named SA Rugby player of the year, and fittingly) is a utility-offering must, and Siya Kolisi is the national captain and presently staple openside flank.
There will be rivals from other SA franchises keeping them on their toes during Super Rugby, no doubt, which should help to stave off any thoughts of complacency.
But more often than not, a full-strength Stormers pack should go forward rather more often than it retreats. If it doesn’t, a couple of cats may be set among pigeons in Bok coach Rassie Erasmus’s preparations.
*NEXT AND FINAL PART IN SERIES: The Stormers’ shortcomings
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