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Bristling brutes are a commodity in the Stormers pack and the loss of enforcer lock Rynhardt Elstadt to injury is a significant blow to coach Allister Coetzee’s plans for a fast start to the Super 15 season.
“The major injury concerns are Deon Fourie and Rynhardt Elstadt,” Coetzee told reporters after a training session at Tygerberg Rugby Club yesterday afternoon.
The compact hooker has been ruled out for six weeks after suffering a broken hand during last week’s 38-13 pre- season win against the EP Kings in Port Elizabeth, and the coach confirmed that the lock had also been sidelined, for “a minimum of two weeks, maybe three”, with a grade-one ankle ligament tear in the same match.
Joe Pietersen (hamstring), Nick Koster (knee), Brok Harris (knee), and Juan de Jongh (jaw) were also notably missing from practice in Ravensmead.
Elstadt’s withdrawal leaves the coach with just a quartet of abrasive forwards – Tiaan Liebenberg, Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and captain Schalk Burger – who will be tasked with fronting up against the roughhouse Hurricanes and Sharks at Newlands in the first two matches at Newlands.
Even though the north islanders are adjusting to life without the powerful All Blacks duo of halfback Piri Weepu and centre Ma’a Nonu – both signed for the Blues in the off-season – the Hurricanes relish trench warfare.
And over the past two seasons the Sharks have cultivated arguably the competition’s most physically imposing pack of forwards.
The Durban-based side will be determined to avenge last year’s double defeat against the Stormers, while Mark Hammett’s regime change in Wellington will gather momentum if the Hurricanes clinch their first win in Cape Town since 2006.
“It’s important to get some momentum early on in the competition,” Coetzee said of the Stormers’ run of four home games in the first six weeks.
The coach nominated De Kock Steenkamp as the man to fill the void in the second row, but while the 24-year-old is an ever-improving lineout tactician who gets through a mountain of work, his selection will not be viewed with trepidation by either of the Hurricanes or the Sharks’ halfbacks.
Eben Etzebeth is a jumping lock – his move to No 4 is an exercise in player management designed to keep the talented youngster from moving to the Bulls – while both of the Stormers’ specialist scrumming locks, Quinn Roux and Hilton Lobberts, took their first steps back from injury in a warm-up match for the Western Province Vodacom Cup team in George last night.
It took a late conversion from replacement flyhalf Kurt Coleman to clinch a draw and Coetzee will be unimpressed by the fact that several fringe Stormers – including Coleman, Roux, Lobberts, Demetri Catrakilis, Nick Fenton-Wells and Rohan Kitshoff – leaked 40 points against a depleted Eagles outfit.
The Stormers leaked just one try against the Kings and, while the coach admitted this was as a result of a defensive lapse from Bryan Habana, Coetzee is confident that the Springboks’ all-time leading try-scorer is capable of filling in at outside centre for De Jongh.
“Juan is touch and go for the first game,” said Coetzee. “And there’s a big possibility that Bryan could start at outside centre.
“He made just one defensive mistake against the Kings, he still defends a bit like a winger, but if you look at the tries that Gio Aplon and Joe Pietersen scored, Bryan got the ball to the outside.
“He’s outstanding on attack and I think Bryan is experienced enough to know that he’s got to bring his defensive game up to the same level.”
The Stormers’ hopes of taking their kicking game to another level have been boosted by scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage’s recovery from a protracted turf toe injury.
“I’m looking positively to consider Dewaldt for the Hurricanes, depending on how he shapes up in the contact sessions,” added Coetzee.
“He’s naturally fit, and I haven’t ruled him out of being in the starting line-up, even though he might not give us a full 80 minutes. I was a scrumhalf myself, so I know we can rely on him.”
Meanwhile, the Sharks are expected to accomplish a clean sweep of the Kings by South Africa’s current Super 15 franchises when they travel to Port Elizabeth on Friday.
The Kings, who have been guaranteed a place in next year’s competition by SA Rugby president Oregan Hoskins, conceded 14 tries in an emphatic 88-0 defeat against the Lions in George last night.
Flyhalf Elton Jantjies scored a brace and converted nine tries for a haul of 28 points as the Lions – who finished 14th last season – routed the Kings.