CAPE TOWN – The lock at flank curse has struck again. The Stormers, of all teams, have fallen into the trap of playing one of the world’s best locks in the loose trio.
Pieter-Steph du Toit is a colossus in the second row, and is perhaps only behind All Black technician Sam Whitelock as a No 5.
Yet, Robbie Fleck – just like Heyneke Meyer before him at the Springboks – feels Du Toit can be a success at blindside flank, selecting him for the second week in a row for Friday’s Super Rugby showdown against the Highlanders in Dunedin.
The evidence so far and the reality of the situation indicate otherwise. Yes, supporters of having such a big unit at No 7 will say that Du Toit first made his name in South African rugby as a loose forward, during that memorable Under-20 World Cup triumph in 2012 at Newlands.
But that was as a 19-year-old just out of school and hungry to operate in a “looser” role. Baby Boks coach Dawie Theron also wanted to accommodate a superb lineout jumper in Ruan Botha at No 5 at the time, and it worked a treat to complement Paul Willemse as a front lock.
Now it’s five years later, Du Toit is 24 and has had a horrendous run of injuries that has seen him miss about two of those years. As tough a soldier as Du Toit is, he just doesn’t possess that spring in his step that is required for a No 7.
He was thrown into the deep end by Meyer in the “Nightmare of Brighton” at the 2015 World Cup against Japan, and again by Allister Coetzee last November against England at Twickenham, where he was badly exposed on defence.
But even as a ball-carrier on attack, Du Toit doesn’t bring the required punch for a No 7, as the agility isn’t quite there.
That was the case against the Crusaders last week in Christchurch, where the loose trio of Jordan Taufua, Matt Todd and Kieran Read were all more influential than Du Toit.
Fleck may point to his jumping ability at the back of the lineout as part of the reason for Du Toit playing at flank, but he does have the skills and nous to move up and down the lineout anyway.
Jan de Klerk, who will start at No 5 against the Highlanders, is a hard-grafting type of lock. He is a capable lineout jumper too, but is not nearly as athletic as Du Toit is in the second row.
What makes the Du Toit selection on Wednesday even more puzzling is the fact that the Stormers are not short on quality loose forwards. Despite the injury-enforced absence of young Cobus Wiese, captain Siya Kolisi is back from a SA Rugby-enforced rest, and Nizaam Carr is finally back in his preferred No 8 position.
Sikhumbuzo Notshe has been impressive in all three loose-forward positions, and brings the necessary energy as a ball-carrier and a willing defender who gets across the ground quickly with his searing pace.
Notshe isn’t particularly strong in turning ball over at the breakdowns, but Kolisi and Carr – as well as hooker Bongi Mbonambi – are more than capable of covering that aspect.
Instead, Notshe finds himself on the bench for Friday’s game. In addition, Kobus van Dyk has flown over to New Zealand this week in place of Wiese, and has just been voted the Varsity Cup player of the tournament.
Van Dyk played in most of Western Province’s Currie Cup games last year, and is versatile enough to play at No 8 and blindside flank.
Another player who hasn’t really entered the discussion in terms of Stormers loose forwards is Junior Springbok star Zain Davids. The youngster from Grassy Park has been part of the Blitzbok set-up this season, and has now been roped back into the SA Under-20 camp, captaining the side on Tuesday night against the Varsity Cup Dream Team.
We’ve seen his SA Under-20 teammates from 2016, such as Curwin Bosch, Wiese, Jeremy Ward and others perform in Super Rugby this season. Yet one of the leading lights of last year’s Under-20 World Cup in Davids hasn’t been provided with the same opportunity.
Why is that? The “traditional” conservative thinkers in South African rugby would say that Davids is “too small”…
But you would think that the Stormers have moved away from that kind of thinking, considering their mindset in 2017 and the kind of rugby they are playing.
Davids is an ideal match for that approach – physical, confrontational, speed, side-stepping ability, offloading skills – the list goes on.
Again, critics may point to the weakest part of his game, defence, but the positives that Davids would offer the Stormers far outweighs the negatives of his size and perceived defensive frailties.
It’s not as if Davids is “scared” or can’t tackle – it’s perhaps more a technical shortcoming that can be addressed with specialised coaching, which he would receive at Super Rugby level with the Stormers.
But whether it’s Notshe, Van Dyk or Davids, the fact remains that Pieter-Steph du Toit shouldn’t be wearing the No 7 jersey – at Super Rugby or Test level.