Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The return, not just to the team but also of his personal sparkle, of Jaco Taute to the Stormers’ fullback role in recent weeks could hardly have been better timed.
Stripped of their little magician Cheslin Kolbe for Saturday’s potentially season-defining Vodacom Super Rugby quarter-final against the Chiefs at Newlands (19:00), given his commitment to the SA Sevens cause at the looming Olympics, the Capetonian franchise did not seem overly blessed with replacement possibilities in the last line of defence a few weeks back.
That was partly because the often jinxed Taute, still only 25, was gradually feeling his way back from long-term injury, and has also had relatively little exposure to his once staple berth in recent times as Western Province have been keen to make use of his versatile services in midfield.
But when Kolbe waved goodbye to Super Rugby for the remainder of the 2016 campaign after the home triumph over the Cheetahs on May 28, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck, no doubt still with vivid memories of how Taute burst onto the scene with his skills from the last of defence for the Lions some six years ago, quickly revived his role at No 15.
The Springs-born competitor, who earned a handful of Springbok caps in 2012 before making the trek south to join the Stormers for the 2013 season, has had a decidedly mixed run of fortune at Newlands – but that has mostly been down to the disruptive effects of injury, which included a particularly nasty tearing of several knee ligaments in that maiden year at Newlands.
But Taute has now played three sprightly games at fullback on the trot for Fleck’s charges, a period that has included bonus-point wins against all of the Rebels, Force and Kings and seen them register 18 tries.
As with so many of his colleagues, a rather more acid examination awaits Taute on Saturday against the two-time champions from Waikato, but there seems no reason to expect him to flounder.
Indeed, given the possibility of wet and heavy conditions which may force a high emphasis on “tactical” play, the ex-Lions star’s physical dimensions come in reassuringly handy – he stands 1.91m tall and weighs some 98kg.
That doesn’t quite make him a Sireli Naqelevuki for brute power, but he is certainly a better defender than the fickle, giant Fijian ever was at Newlands, and he helps restore the balance from a height point of view among a Stormers/WP back three which, while hardly lacking pace and flair, has often been collectively on the short and pretty light side.
Whilst the ever-gutsy Kolbe is entitled to still be considered the preferred choice at fullback for the Stormers when available, Taute could be a timely horse for the Newlands course on Saturday, with a tale of the tape suggesting he could deal fittingly with any “high bomb” assault – although that is not a particularly common tactic among free-running New Zealand rugby sides.
Had the jinking, swerving Kolbe (1.71m, and some 75kg) been playing this weekend, he would have been pitched into “Part 2” of an inviting personal duel with the Chiefs own pocket dynamo at the back, Damian McKenzie.
They were the respective fullbacks – McKenzie only 19 at the time – when these sides last met in the Super Rugby ordinary season at Newlands last year, and the Chiefs won a fast-paced thriller in balmy conditions 28-19.
But Taute looks in good nick right now to give McKenzie a serious run for his money for competence at No 15.
The Stormers may well opt to test the 1.77m McKenzie under high balls (and in a broader defensive capacity) if it happens to be slippery and there is a tricky, swirling winter wind on Saturday.
At least at the other end of the park, the hosts will field someone not only physically suited to the battle but also showing fledgling signs of recapturing his own attacking enterprise.
Taute has been deftly involved in several of the try-engineering moves by the Stormers of late, and Fleck specifically this week praised him, among others, for contributing to improved communication among their key backline players – something that has presumably aided the traditionally try-shy team’s much more frequent visits over the whitewash.
That may be a sign in itself that Jacob Johannes Taute is finally coming more fully into his own in his fourth season of Super Rugby with the Stormers...
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