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The Stormers are poised to push for the top spot on the Super Rugby log, and Robbie Fleck on Thursday reminded everyone just how important the role of captain Jean de Villiers has been this season.
With the Stormers flying out to Bloemfontein on Friday to take on the Cheetahs, De Villiers is expected to guide his team through what will be a tricky game in what could be a cold and wet Free State Stadium on Saturday. It would of course just be the luck of the Stormers that they play in Bloemfontein on the one day in winter that it rains.
But the Springbok centre and captain has seen it all before, and it is his calmness on and off the field that Fleck says is crucial in keeping the Stormers on the right track. Asked if becoming Bok captain has changed De Villiers at all, Fleck said on Thursday: “Jean has matured a lot this year, and having had a baby has had a huge impact on his life. The Springbok captaincy has really done him the world of good, and so has the Stormers captaincy.
“He’s a guy who’s playing with immense confidence, and just the way he manages the team, and his relationship with the management and coaches, he is a proper, proper well-rounded rugby player and great leader for the team.”
De Villiers’s leadership will be vital in what could very well become a difficult afternoon for the Stormers if they aren’t at their best. The Cheetahs throw the ball around, but their forwards can also slug it out if they are in the mood for a fight. Fleck knows that his team cannot afford to slip up on Saturday. The expected slippery conditions won’t make things easier either.
“We have a certain strategy that works against the Cheetahs, regardless of the weather conditions,” the Stormers backline coach said.
“The important thing against them is that you keep it tighter, like the Bulls showed at the weekend in the first half and we did in the game at Newlands, where we went 16-0 up in the first half. The Cheetahs thrive on a situation where you get a bit loose and tend to lose your way. They thrive on turnover possession, and with their rush defence, put you under pressure and look for those intercepts.”
The Stormers know that their biggest test will come in the scrums after they struggled for stability against the Lions last week. Steven “Rooi Gevaar” Kitshoff’s return from a week’s rest at loosehead prop will add some weight to the scrumming effort. But the Cheetahs have also brought WP Nel back into the team at No 3, and he seldom takes a backward step.
Cheetahs No 1 Trevor Nyakane is also a big unit, and it will be up to Frans Malherbe to bury the ghosts of last week’s mauling at the hands of JC Janse van Rensburg (Malherbe was ill on the day, though) with a powerful display.
The make-up of the loose trio is still up in the air as No 8 Jebb Sinclair is battling with a calf strain. Fleck said that Tyrone Holmes will travel with the squad to Bloemfontein. If Sinclair is ruled out, Siya Kolisi is likely to pack down at No 8 for the second consecutive match, with Holmes coming back into the starting line-up at openside flank following his debut against the Lions.
Holmes could have a big role to play, as he will come up against discarded Springbok fetcher Heinrich Brüssow.
Cheetahs: 15 Willie le Roux, 14 Nico Scheepers, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Barry Geel, 11 Cameron Jacobs, 10 Riaan Smit, 9 Pieter van Zyl, 8 Justin Downey, 7 Lappies Labuschagne, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 WP Nel, 2 Adriaan Strauss (capt), 1 Trevor Nyakane. Bench: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Marcel van der Merwe, 18 Waltie Vermeulen, 19 Ashley Johnson, 20 Tewis de Bruyn, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Philip Snyman.
Stormers: 15 Joe Pietersen, 14 Gio Aplon, 13 Juan de Jongh, 12 Jean de Villiers (capt), 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Dewaldt Duvenage, 8 Jebb Sinclair, 7 Rynhardt Elstadt, 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 De Kock Steenkamp, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Deon Fourie, 1 Steven Kitshoff. Bench: 16 Tiaan Liebenberg, 17 Deon Carstens, 18 Quinn Roux, 19 Don Armand, 20 Louis Schreuder, 21 Burton Francis, 22 Gerhard van den Heever.
Referee: Craig Joubert. Kickoff: 3pm. TV: M-Net/SS1/SS HD.