Another Stormers ‘runaway’ unlikely

2016-01-20 12:12
Jaco Taute (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – They were South Africa’s best performers of an unconvincing bunch in Super Rugby 2015, aided by a bright start ... but the Stormers look more vulnerable for the early stages of the new-look campaign this season.

In short, the franchise will have an unsettled look in the earliest weeks of the season in the critical decision-making positions – numbers nine, 10 and 12 -- in their backline.

Their limitations at scrumhalf and flyhalf are already well-documented, and have been widely touted for a couple of seasons previously as areas inhibiting a proper assault for the elusive overall title.

But the one thing they boasted last season was the spectacular arrival at inside centre of Damian de Allende, who went on to become a saving grace in otherwise frequently too sterile Springbok backline play during 2015.

De Allende was at the fulcrum of things as the Stormers near-rampaged through their first four fixtures last year, beating both the Bulls and Lions in their Highveld dens and seeing off the Blues and Sharks at Newlands.

But a media briefing with coach Robbie Fleck on Tuesday provided no special advance on the rather bleak scenario from their point of view of De Allende only sparking into action for them this time at some point in April as he rehabilitates from an ankle injury picked up in Japan late last year.

According to Fleck, the 24-year-old midfield string-puller is apparently “ahead of schedule” with his recovery, but even if he returns in the early part of the month, that was roughly the expectation anyway when his mishap became public knowledge in mid-December.

The absence of De Allende for a likely minimum of six matches – Bulls (h), Cheetahs (a), Sharks (h), Brumbies (h), Jaguares (a), Sunwolves (h) in that order – is unavoidably going to give the Stormers a brittle appearance to their entire “inside three” of the back division.

Their global hunt for a seasoned flyhalf option has borne no fruit, and remember that despite his limitations in certain respects Demetri Catrakilis (now Montpellier) was third-highest points scorer in Super Rugby last season with 170, and usually deadly off the tee from close- or medium-range positions.

It seems a toss-up as to whether the No 10 shirt will be worn at the outset this year by Kurt Coleman or Robert du Preez: both have undoubted talent in their different ways, but occasional bouts of self-confidence issues that can transfer into decidedly scratchy performances.

Meanwhile the scrumhalf picture is barely clearer; the franchise did beef their stocks last season by luring Springbok Jano Vermaak back to the country, yet at Currie Cup level Western Province seemed reluctant to start him, generally preferring the more established Nic Groom for the run-out XV and employing Vermaak as something of a “supersub”.

But it is at No 12 that they could have a serious predicament for the first few weeks of Super Rugby while De Allende is dormant.

Bear in mind that the franchise have veered toward a “selling” rather than “buying” outfit in that department in recent times.

They caught this writer by some surprise when it was revealed last year that veteran former captain Jean de Villiers had been sacrificed to Leicester; the gutsy, often injury-tormented customer had expressed interest to Sport24 at the end of last summer in having another crack with the Stormers in 2016.

That is a major surrender of intellectual quality, however much you may be tempted to suggest De Villiers is well past his prime.

Similarly, the last handful of seasons have seen Newlands bid farewell to other useful midfielders like Pat Howard (Northampton), Mikey van der Spuy (Griquas/Cheetahs) and JP du Plessis (now Kings, after some post-WP globetrotting).

With Springbok Juan de Jongh – well accustomed to both inside and outside centre – putting a major focus on the Bok Sevens set-up this year, including a possible Olympics crack in Rio, the Stormers look more than a little threadbare for available resources.

In their current training pool, there are still Jaco Taute, Huw Jones, Johnny Kotze and Kobus van Wyk to pick from as midfield options, although at least three of those are effectively utility backs, with back-three credentials as well.

The Stormers will also hope to unleash Bok wing try-poacher Cornal Hendricks – he can play in the outside midfield channel - on Super Rugby this season, although he is one of several players doubling up with a Blitzbokke presence in 2016. 

Taute could be the most attractive answer to prayers at No 12 for the first two or three months; he may be a bit of a forgotten Springbok, but is nevertheless a seasoned first-class customer despite still being only 24.

Since moving south from the Lions at the start of 2013, Taute’s time at Newlands has been a little tempestuous, with injuries all too often curbing his quest for momentum and sharpness and the odd disciplinary faux pas as well.

But the converted fullback also went through a spell in 2014 when he was a pleasingly deft presence at No 12, including operating there as WP edged out the Golden Lions in the Currie Cup final that year.

Supposedly at full fitness for the outset of 2016, he looks an inviting fit there once more, with an opportunity to confirm that he still “cuts it” at the higher Super Rugby level.

The Stormers, so often among the better SA sides in recent seasons, may well repeat that phenomenon in 2016.

I just sense, though, that a four-from-four start, a la 2015, may prove more elusive this time around.

Put it this way: the quicker they can reinstate trump-card De Allende to their plans, the better ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing


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