The Stormers have already lost virtually half-a-team to injury. Now captain Jean de Villiers could be another late withdrawal from the side to take on the Bulls at Loftus on Saturday.
De Villiers was on Thursday struggling to shake off a flu bug that has kept him in bed since Tuesday. He has not trained with the team all week, and that alone will be a great disruption.
And just to add to a chaotic state of affairs, lock Eben Etzebeth is also still nursing a troublesome shoulder, so it wouldn’t be a big surprise if he didn’t run out at Loftus either!
Stormers backline coach Robbie Fleck told the Cape Times that the team are “battling at the moment” with regards to injuries, as they’ve had to manage several players this season.
When asked if De Villiers could miss the Bulls game, Fleck said: “I hope not! Obviously Siya was a big loss for us (Kolisi pulled out just before the Sharks match), and we don’t want any more surprises going into a game with the Bulls at Loftus.
“I think Jean is still laying in bed, but he should be all right, hey. So, we will see him for the first time tomorrow morning at the airport. I saw him briefly on Wednesday and he was still looking a little bit tired, but he is all good. It isn’t the ideal preparation, especially with a Bulls game – you want to be nice and fresh, nice and rested, be mentally prepared. Laying in bed doesn’t exactly help you.
“But Jean is the ultimate professional and he has been around the block, so he knows what it takes to win up at Loftus. I’m sure that he would’ve rested up as much as he possibly could’ve and taken a lot of fluids. We are going to need some leaders out there on the weekend.”
If De Villiers does pull out, it is likely that Burton Francis will slot in at inside centre. He trained in that position this week.
While Fleck added that Etzebeth was “fine to play”, he did say that the young lock was “been battling with his shoulder a little bit, so we’ve been trying to manage him as best as we can”.
Injury has also forced coach Allister Coetzee to retain Gio Aplon at fullback as Joe Pietersen’s back strain is still hampering him. Aplon seemed hesitant at the back in the first half of the Sharks game last week, and he will be tested with a series of up-and-unders from Morné Steyn and Zane Kirchner.
Fleck admits that Aplon will need help from his teammates to deal with those “bombs”, but was confident that the speedy utility back will be able to handle the occasion.
“Gio hasn’t played there since the Lions pre-season game. At the back there, you need to control things. Joe has done exceptionally well, so it was a big change for Gio last week,” he said. “But I think that in the second half, he settled down and brought a different dynamic to the team. He started to counter-attack a lot more, and he brings something really different to what Joe does.
“He definitely can handle those up-and-unders. When we played a Super 15 game last year, I remember that he handled it extremely well. Obviously we have to help him out in terms of the kicking game – in terms of the positional play, because Morné is a real exponent of that. The likes of Bash (Peter Grant) and Dewaldt need to help out and get some good distance kicks, and also be smart about when to kick and when not to kick.
“Gio doesn’t have as big a boot as Joe obviously, but one thing that the Bulls will be wary of is that while he may not put the Bulls under pressure through his own kicking game, he definitely is a threat on attack, from counter-attack. So they will have to be a lot wiser, they won’t just kick it down his throat.”
Juan de Jongh has also not made the impact that he had in previous seasons, but Saturday presents him with an ideal opportunity to stake a claim for the Springbok outside-centre berth ahead of next week’s first Test against England in Durban.
De Villiers is in line to wear the Bok No 13 jersey alongside Frans Steyn, but a big performance from De Jongh against JJ Engelbrecht, who has not played a lot of senior rugby at centre, could just make Heyneke Meyer think again.
“Juan probably hasn’t had as many opportunities as in previous seasons. His work in terms of his tackling and taking up the ball has been phenomenal this year,” Fleck said.
“If we remember back to the tour when him and Bryan were at centre, he really did dominate when he was at 12. I feel that, under the circumstances, he’s had a great season. He hasn’t had those clear line-breaks that he had last year, but for me, he is still doing the hard yards and the extra work that we probably didn’t see from him last year. He is a quality player, and I definitely think that he needs to be pushing for that Bok space and fight against the top players.”
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morné Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies (capt), 7 CJ Stander, 6 Dewald Potgieter, 5 Juandré Kruger, 4 Flip van der Merwe, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Dean Greyling. Bench: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Rayno Gerber, 18 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 19 Arno Botha, 20 Jano Vermaak, 21 Louis Fouché, 22 Francois Venter.
Stormers: 15 Gio Aplon, 14 Gerhard van den Heever, 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 De Kock Steenkamp, 4 Eben Etzebeth, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Tiaan Liebenberg, 1 Deon Carstens. Bench: 16 Deon Fourie, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Quinn Roux, 19 Don Armand, 20 Nick Fenton-Wells, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Burton Francis.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan. Kickoff: 7.10pm. TV: M-Net/SS1/SS HD.