Cape Town – Western Province will lay into the Sharks at King’s Park this week and coach Allister Coetzee won’t be able to escape making a few tough calls when he names the team on Wednesday.
Unbeaten Province played some of their most incisive rugby in recent memory during Saturday’s 36-23 bonus-point win against the Lions at Newlands to climb into first place on the Currie Cup standings, with one league match remaining.
Coetzee’s high-flying team will jet off to the east coast this week with the goal of beating the second-placed Sharks to remain at the top of the table and thus earn home-field advantage throughout the play-offs.
But the team that files onto King’s Park may feature a few telling changes.
The return to fitness and form of Schalk Burger, coupled with the imminent arrival of forwards Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermeulen from the Springbok squad, will create congestion in the loose forward department and Coetzee will be tempted to take the path of least resistance by shifting captain Deon Fourie back to the front row this week.
The coach will otherwise have to bench two from a list featuring Burger, Kolisi, Vermeulen, Fourie and Rynhardt Elstadt in filling three back row berths, with Etzebeth and De Kock Steenkamp the expected lock combination.
Coetzee has already hinted that Kolisi – who started 12 matches in the Stormers No 6 jersey this season – will slot straight back in and Fourie will struggle to beat out any of the other contenders in the race to pack down as a ball-carrying flanker.
With Kolisi at No 6 and Vermeulen a shoo-in at No 8, Burger is an obvious choice to start on the blindside, with Elstadt on the bench.
That leaves the hooker position as the only means of keeping the team captain in the starting line-up.
However, Fourie is to playing hooker what Burger is to playing James Bond – not well suited to the role.
The richest source of set-piece try-scoring opportunities is the lineout and Fourie has a history of battling with target-acquisition, especially with throws beyond the front jumper.
The reverse is true of Scarra Ntubeni, who is an infinitely superior set-piece rake.
It was Ntubeni’s hard shoulder at the scrum and seamless lineout work that allowed Fourie to make an impact at the tackle point on Saturday, not to mention last year’s final in Durban.
Coetzee wavers between demanding high standards of discipline and giving Fourie free rein to chance his arm at the breakdown. But, even though Fourie is a serial infringer at the tackle point, he is a fearless ball-hawk who adds sting to a WP defensive line that plays the numbers game.
With the tailwind of a solid scrum, Fourie’s ability to get in over his fellow ball-carriers at the tackle was a key factor in feeding WP’s attack with quick ball on Saturday.
What Coetzee should be contemplating is whether his captain’s work-rate surpasses Kolisi’s physicality, because deploying Fourie at hooker will be a giant stride backwards for a pack that desperately needs to find consistency at the scrum and lineout.
With the 2014 Super Rugby season in mind, Ntubeni is the future – 31-year-old Tiaan Liebenberg is battling a serious back injury, and Fourie is a liability at the line-out.
The time is now for Coetzee to show that repeated Super Rugby play-off losses have indeed taught him the importance of set-piece proficiency.