Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Stormers ought to have noticed that bookies envisage a lone South African victory in Super Rugby this weekend … and that it won’t be theirs.
Predictably, last season’s runners-up the Lions are confidently tipped to beat the Jaguares in Johannesburg, and despite the broad belief that the Bulls will improve in 2018, Saturday’s free-spirited visitors the Hurricanes are deemed a fairly safe pick to prevail at Loftus.
But Waratahs v Stormers in Sydney? That may have required a fairly protracted look into the crystal ball before the experts decided the ‘Tahs are a wise call.
Home ground advantage can be a common determinant in instances where teams look closely matched on paper, of course, but here are a few reasons to suggest a successful Sydney raid by the Stormers cannot be summarily written off …
1 The Stormers scrum
Even in prior instances where they’ve been without the monumental presence of Eben Etzebeth for oomph from the second row, the Cape side have shown that their scrum is a potent ally in times of need.
Although the set-piece performed a little fitfully in the hard-earned opening-round triumph over the Jaguares at Newlands, a monster scrum at a key moment in the second half played no small part in the Stormers repelling a fierce fightback by the Argentine side.
Impact loose-head JC Janse van Rensburg was very much to the fore in that one, and he lurks threateningly on the bench once more in Sydney.
But just as importantly, the visitors start again with two fast-emerging Springbok internationals propping the scrum, in the shape of Steven Kitshoff and, on the tighthead side, Wilco Louw.
It will be a surprise if they play second fiddle to Waratahs rivals Paddy Ryan (tighthead) and Tom Robertson; the former is a wily, 91-cap veteran for the NSW outfit and the latter does boast 18 Wallaby caps, but only two as a starter thus far.
Kitshoff and Louw are much closer to the fulcrum of Bok plans these days and will be expected to put a key stamp on things at scrum-time on Saturday.
2 The Damian Willemse “mystery” element
How much Currie Cup video homework might the Waratahs have done?
If not a lot (or any) from the 2017 SA domestic competition, then they won’t be hugely aware of the twinkle-toed threat posed by Stormers No 10 wunderkind Willemse.
His stepping skills are extraordinary and, if the Sydney Football Stadium pitch is firm – it should be, with clear and warm weather predicted – his attacking repertoire (he is also happy taking the ball close the advantage line) should be generously apparent.
When the Waratahs last played the Stormers, at Newlands in 2016 when Michael Hooper’s 78th-minute try broke Newlands hearts (32-30), Jean-Luc du Plessis, still on the current absentee list through injury, was the home pivot.
Willemse also plays this fixture comforted by the knowledge that, well as he mostly did in the department against the Jaguares, SP Marais is back in the fullback berth to provide useful supplementary options in place-kicking if the game looks like being influenced by successes or otherwise in that area.
3 Been there, done that
Apart from the natural hope that should be generated in the visiting ranks because the Waratahs haven’t played a Super Rugby match yet this season and may run the risk of rustiness and some early lack of cohesion, it is always handy to know you aren’t exactly entering an enemy “fortress”.
The last time the Stormers visited Sydney, in the 2015 season, they earned a rousing 32-18 victory, helped in no small measure by a brace of tries to Damian de Allende.
He wears the No 12 jersey again here … a good omen, perhaps?
There are four other survivors from the Stormers’ plans that day who will be part of the mix on Saturday: Kitshoff, Nizaam Carr, Siya Kolisi and Dillyn Leyds.
4 Where’s Waratahs’ wrecking ball?
Daryl Gibson, the Waratahs coach, did caution after a decent pre-season by their juggernaut, near-125kg wing Taqele Naiyaravoro that his place wasn’t assured.
“It’s competitive and he’s one of a number of guys who could fill that spot,” he was quoted recently as saying.
Well, the Fijian-born bruiser is nowhere to be seen in the ‘Tahs match-day squad for this encounter, which won’t displease a Stormers side far more renowned for stealth and guile than muscle in their own wider positions …
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