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An under-strength Stormers pack will be most severely tested at the lineout by the Western Force when the teams meet in Perth on Saturday.
Despite the fact that they are perilously close to the last-placed Blues on the Super 15 log, the Force will be confident of leveraging the tournament’s most prodigious lineout against a makeshift Stormers unit missing the likes of Springbok lock Andries Bekker, and loose forwards Duane Vermeulen and Nick Koster.
Bekker sat out of last week’s clash against the defending champion Reds with a lower back injury and was scheduled to undergo a fitness test before the team to face the Force is announced on Wednesday.
Coach Allister Coetzee will breathe a long sigh of relief if the tallest Bok is given the all-clear because the Force’s philosophy has, to date, relied very heavily on the most-capped Super Rugby campaigner, Nathan Sharpe.
The veteran Wallaby lock will run on in his 156th appearance on Saturday, and while De Kock Steenkamp was solid in Bekker’s absence, the Stormers’ second-string lineout manager lacks the experience and the supporting cast to contend with Sharpe’s experience.
Only the Stormers have kicked more than the Western Australia outfit this season, but no-one has won more lineout feeds (114) with greater efficiency (93 percent). And the fact that Sharpe is so adept at winning his ball means that the Stormers may struggle for field position, even more so than they usually do.
Coetzee’s side rank 13th in the league for time spent in their opponent’s 22-metre area, with an average of 2.8 minutes per match, and only two sides (Brumbies and Highlanders) have averaged less time in their own red zone than the Force this season (1.7 minutes).
Young Eben Etzebeth is a quality jumper while flanker Rynhardt Elstadt is a front lock by trade, but the Stormers will struggle to contest the Force’s feed without their lineout supremo.
On his feed, Bekker has made full use of Vermeulen as a relieving jumper to keep rivals guessing and Steenkamp called four balls on the No 8 during last week’s win in Brisbane.
Koster was used in the same role at the tail of the lineout earlier this season, and the loss of both back-ball options will shorten the time Sharpe spends on coming up with a contesting policy.
Former Bishops link man Nizaam Carr is expected to start at No 8 and though the 21-year-old is a nimble runner with excellent spatial awareness, at 1.84m he is almost 10cm shorter than Vermeulen and Koster.
Fortunately, the Force’s back row is also relatively short-set, with fetcher David Pocock (1.84m), Richard Brown (1.89m) and No 8 Matt Hodgson (1.85m) the likely combination.
Bekker cried off in the first quarter of the 31-24 loss against the Crusaders in Christchurch and, when Etzebeth trudged off before half-time, the Stormers shied away from kicking the ball into touch for the remainder of the match.
It was a poor tactical decision, given that the Crusaders lineout has operated at a lowly 80 percent this season, and it lured the Stormers into an open-ended kicking duel that ultimately compromised the integrity of their renowned defensive wall.
The Force racked up team-high totals for kicks between week four and six and came within two points of a three-game winning streak – beating the Waratahs 21-20 in Sydney, going down 30-29 against the Rebels in Melbourne and then walloping the Reds 45-19 in Perth.
The Stormers must dominate the lineout battle to ensure that the Force are limited to kicking relieving touch-finders from deep in their own territory, and not free to toe the ball in behind them on attack. – Cape Argus