Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - It could be the most debilitating single-season exodus yet of players from a frontline South African franchise in Super Rugby.
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The Stormers (and Western Province) will find themselves effectively starting from scratch in 2020 if, as seems increasingly the risk, the overwhelming core of their frontline squad this season flee crisis-gripped Newlands later in the year.
It is already a well-known fact that some of their bluest-chip senior Springboks, including national and franchise captain Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Steven Kitshoff and just-named SA Rugby player of the year Pieter-Steph du Toit, come off contract with cash-strapped WP Rugby after the 2019 campaign.
All would be in strong demand in Europe, where Bok loosehead prop Kitshoff has already had a prior spell (with Bordeaux in the French Top 14) and Etzebeth is reported to have already agreed terms to join ever-ambitious Toulon after one last Super Rugby hurrah with the Stormers.
Another fairly staple Stormers pack figure and popular squad leadership-group figure, hooker Scarra Ntubeni - he has shown enormous character to fight back several times from major injuries despite still being only 27 - also reaches the end of his current terms this year.
But Sport24 has learned from reliable sources within WP Rugby that a want-away restlessness is far more deeply rooted than that: well over 40 players at Newlands come off contract at the end of 2019, with only around a quarter of that tally strongly expected at this stage to stay on.
It is understood that many of the “stayers” are not players currently guaranteed first-team berths in the Super Rugby side.
Four who are firmly anticipated to stay on, for example, are tighthead prop Wilco Louw - often the understudy to frontline scrum anchorman at No 3 Malherbe - lock and former SA under-20 captain Salmaan Moerat, flank Kobus van Dyk and diminutive wing try-poacher Sergeal Petersen.
None of that quartet are guaranteed starts in the Super Rugby season-opening derby against the Bulls at Loftus next Saturday, although Moerat is only 20 and tipped for a bright future, and Van Dyk, Louw and Petersen all 24.
But if there is a widespread exodus of other, often more frontline Newlands-based personnel, they may suddenly find themselves catapulted to relatively senior status in the Stormers team of 2020 and beyond.
WP Rugby prides itself in its youth structures, but there is a rising risk that a mass departure of their most seasoned figures will leave both the Stormers in Super Rugby and WP in the Currie Cup unusually more vulnerable than they would like (Newlands is traditionally one of the best-attended professional rugby venues in South Africa) for at least a couple of seasons after the current one.
Under-delivery in results terms is that last thing the administrators at the ground would want, given the extent of the financial pickle and the need to restore public confidence and improve gate receipts as a result: there is a mounting danger of the opposite effect.
Tension is understood to be at fever pitch in the playing squad over the “Paul Treu affair”, which has had a distracting effect on preparatory plans for the imminent Super Rugby campaign.
One of the back-up coaches to Robbie Fleck last season, former SA Sevens icon Treu accused some in the group of “discrimination” last year, and an expensively-financed independent probe (by a top law firm) was initiated by WP Rugby.
More than 20 players are believed to have been drawn into the inquiry, which later found no culpability by any of the colleagues Treu had pointed his finger at.
There is a delicate impasse at present around Treu’s role in 2019, as a large group of senior Stormers players are understood to be firmly resistant to the rumour that new WP president Zelt Marais wants to promote him to a more senior capacity, possibly at the expense of director of rugby Gert Smal.
Sources have told Sport24 that Treu has “zero role” with the team as things stand, and players are anxiously awaiting feedback from the Board over grievances.
“The players are being as professional as they possibly can (in pre-season) but there is also a great deal of nervousness around the place,” said one.
“There are certainly guys speaking to agents (about possible relocation).”
Although the big Bulls opener is only eight days away, the Stormers have still not officially divulged their coaching group for Super Rugby 2019.
Inquiries to WP Rugby about when that was likely, and also about contracting plans at Newlands for 2020 and beyond had gone unanswered at the time of writing.
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