CAPE TOWN - If Cheetahs coach Franco Smith was scribbling in his rugby notebook this week, it was probably not the outline of his team’s latest line-out trick he was taking down, but rather how to combat Eben Etzebeth’s powerful line-out presence.
Or it could have been exactly that - another line-out trick to try and keep Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit guessing. Who knows?
One thing that we all do know is that Etzebeth and fellow Bok Du Toit, who will make a welcome return to the Stormers line-up against the Cheetahs on Saturday after being rested against the Sunwolves, have not only menaced the opposition at the set-piece, but they’ve also been two of the hardest working men on the pitch. And they’ve been so consistently.
So I guess it’s understandable that out of all the other areas or players Smith could be focused on, the line-outs, and in general the Stormers’ “big pack of forwards” would have been first to come to mind.
“We have to come back a better team, and hopefully that mindset will help us to win. I think it’s a huge challenge to play against that line-out of theirs and their big pack of forwards - I think it’s going to be important that we do well in that area of play,” Smith said.
“We know there’s a tall task awaiting us with the Stormers having their Springbok locks back, especially with Eben Etzebeth being able to say he’s the best in the country.”
And while Smith, whose team have only won two of their five matches, is focused on fighting the Stormers’ line-outs, he added that they were also going to focus on themselves at Newlands.
“I think the biggest challenge will be to play to our own standards and not to feel too intimidated by the opposition. It’s always difficult to play the Stormers at Newlands, but we have to go there focused on what we can do better.”
“We’ve been our own worst enemies up until now, and the travelling takes a toll of course. All we can do is to put in the hard work that’s needed for us to get to where we want to be.”
But moving away from the forward dominance and the line-out battle - which should be an interesting one to say the least (one just doesn’t know anymore whether it will be a Cheetahs wing or scrumhalf or whoever acting as the jumper), the Stormers and the Cheetahs should dish up a great attacking meal. Especially the Cheetahs, who have kept their kicking-from-hand to an absolute minimum, with only 15 of these kicks until now.
And the fact that more South African teams are trying to make the switch excites Smith, who said that Stormers centre EW Viljoen’s try against the Sunwolves last week also had him smiling.
In the build-up to that try, which started all the way back in the Stormers’ 22, Robbie Fleck’s team kept the ball alive and produced a number of beautifully timed and space-creating passes - ranging from swift inside passes to off-the-ground and backflip offloads - and Viljoen finished off the great team effort by scooping up the ball with one hand to score.
“Most of the teams in South Africa are coming away with the ball a lot better and they look more dangerous with ball in hand. So yes, it’s something to be excited about,” Smith said.
“No, that was definitely great to see (Viljoen’s try). It’s good for South African rugby - let’s not call it ball-in-hand rugby, let’s call it attacking rugby. And I’m glad to see it happening.”
It’s actually a pity that the battle of the backs didn’t get as much recognition as the forwards did when Smith discussed today’s fixture, as that should be another appetising treat.
Fleck’s team will have Robert du Preez and Jano Vermaak pairing up as the halfbacks - a combination that has done well so far. SP Marais returns to No 15 with Dillyn Leyds, who had a massive performance against the Sunwolves at fullback, moving to the wing.
Cheslin Kolbe is also back to add to the attacking punch of the Stormers backline, while the Cheetahs welcome back centre and skipper Francois Venter.
Speaking of skippers, Stormers captain Siya Kolisi admitted that his team were a bit too confident going into their 44-31 scare in Singapore, but he assured fans that they were better prepared for the Cheetahs clash.
“I think we’re much better prepared now and I’m glad it happened now, sooner rather than later. It’s a very tough game and it always is playing the Cheetahs. We’ve got to stay calm no matter the situation we’re in. The guys were calm in Singapore, I think a bit too calm.”
Stormers team: 15 SP Marais, 14 Cheslin Kolbe, 13 EW Viljoen, 12 Dan du Plessis, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Robert du Preez, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe, 7 Siya Kolisi (captain), 6 Cobus Wiese, 5 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Bongi Mbonambi, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg
Replacements: 16 Ramone Samuels, 17 Caylib Oosthuizen, 18 Oli Kebble, 19 Chris van Zyl, 20 Nizaam Carr, 21 Dewaldt Duvenage, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Dan Kriel
Cheetahs team: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (captain), 12 Niel Marais, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais
Replacements: 16 Elandre Huggett, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Carl Wegner, 20 Niell Jordaan, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 Nico Lee, 23 Luther Obi
Referee: Rasta Rasivhenge
Kick-off: 3.05 pm