Tough decisions await Lions, Stormers

    2016-07-06 20:02

    Gavin Rich -

    Cape Town - The Jaguares haven’t covered themselves in glory during their first season in Vodacom Super Rugby and failed to live up to the billing they were given at the start of the year by some coaches from opposition franchises.

    After Argentina’s excellent performance at last year’s World Cup, much was expected of a team featuring several Pumas, and the trips to play them in front of potentially hostile crowds in Buenos Aires were not being relished.

    The latter part of the expectation has proved true. The Pumas have lost a few games at home, but they’ve been difficult opponents for everyone that has visited. And in their last match against the Vodacom Bulls they looked like they might at last be discovering their Mojo as they look to take some momentum into the last part of the season.

    The very last part of the last part of their season features a match against the Emirates Lions, who just happened to thrash them in Johannesburg in May, and they’d love to finish off the year by spoiling the Lions’ quest for top spot on the combined log.

    It’s something that must be weighing on the mind of Lions coach Johan Ackermann. He and Stormers mentor Robbie Fleck are in the happy position of being certain of play-off qualification, and should thus be giving some consideration to resting key players in the last two games of the regular season.

    Ackermann has shown his cards already for this week’s clash with the Southern Kings in Johannesburg. He wants a full house of five log points from the game, and then he says he will reassess after that. For that purpose, he’s called up the same squad that smashed the Cell C Sharks last weekend.

    However, while there has been speculation that this might mean he intends resting key players for the trip to Buenos Aires, that doesn’t make sense. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? The Lions should be able to beat the Kings and pick up the bonus point with a second string team. The Jaguares in Argentina are an entirely different story.

    Where the complication comes in though for Ackermann is that the trip to Buenos Aires is not just tough because the Argentinian players grow and extra arm and a leg when at home. The flight to and from Johannesburg is a complicated one as it goes via Sau Paulo and features some standing around and waiting in airport lounges, and the Lions are due to play their first play-off game the following week.

    That game could be against the Sharks or the Bulls, which of course Ackermann would prefer, but it could also be against a tough New Zealand team like the Hurricanes or Crusaders, who won comfortably on their previous visits to Johannesburg this year.

    And the biggest complication of course is that it does matter to the Lions whether they finish top or second on the log, for top secures a home run right through the play-offs. So beating the Jaguares should be seen as necessary.

    Ackermann wants his team to go all the way, and to do that they need to win three play-off games on successive Saturdays, and he will want his players to be fresh for that challenge. He has been helped by the June break for the internationals when it came to rank and file players, but some of his Springboks should be requiring a break around about now.

    For Fleck it is a lot less complicated. The big emphasis must be on his team doing what they should be expected to do against the Western Force in Perth this coming weekend, and then comes a relatively easy last game against the Kings at Newlands. In other words, the Stormers won’t be travelling after this week – at least not before the qualifying round – and they will be hoping that they go into the Kings game not needing anything from it, which will mean they can rest players.

    The player most in line for a rest is Springbok lock Pieter-Steph du Toit, who has played non-stop rugby since March and although there was doubt about his participation in the first test against Ireland because of a hamstring strain, he ended up playing most of that game and the two that followed. The other first choice Stormers Boks have either been used sparingly (Siya Kolisi hasn’t started every game) or have missed a significant part of the season through injury (Eben Etzebeth and Damian de Allende).

    “We’ve been speaking about how we are going to manage him (Du Toit) and his game time,” said Stormers forward coach Russell Winter in a teleconference hook-up with the Cape media on Tuesday.

    “Whether or not resting is an option for him this week I am not sure, but sometime over the next two weeks definitely.”

    What Fleck is unlikely to do is to imitate previous Stormers coach Allister Coetzee by playing a second string team in the last match should the Stormers go into it with no prospect of any impact on where they finish or their chances of making the play-offs. Coetzee did it twice – in late 2014 he rested his first choice team in a last Currie Cup league match against the Sharks, and the Sharks were also the opponents when he did the same thing ahead of the Super Rugby play-offs in 2015.

    Fleck has been talking about getting momentum, and to do that he will want to have most hands on deck over the next few weeks. For once the Stormers have fewer Boks than the Lions do, so he can manage it easier than Ackermann should be able to.

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