CAPE TOWN – Following their 33-28 Marvel-themed pre-season victory over the Bulls, Stormers coach Robbie Fleck says he’s excited about the level of competition within the squad.
This time last year, the Stormers’ casualty list was a much longer one, but now, with only star lock Eben Etzebeth and EW Viljoen from the regular squad set to miss their Super Rugby opener against the Bulls, the team that ended 11th last season are in a very different, much more positive pre-season space.
But with great depth also comes a lot of selection headaches, albeit enviable ones. Fleck did also, however, say that he’s very close to pencilling in his team to face the Bulls on February 16. But things can still change after tonight, of course.
So, here are four key selections and combinations to assess against Boland in their third and final warm-up game before their meeting with the Bulls.
Who’ll get a perfect 10?
With Jean-Luc du Plessis fit and ready after being plagued by injury, it goes without saying that he’ll have to be eased back into the rough waters of Super Rugby. If all goes well, Du Plessis could very well be the one pulling the strings at flyhalf for the Stormers this season, while Damian Willemse could spend more time at fullback. But where does that leave Dillyn Leyds, who’s often come into the first-receiver role after the first few phases on attack?
Willemse will start at 10 against Boland tonight while Du Plessis will come off the bench, and then there’s also Joshua Stander, who did well at No 10 during last year’s Currie Cup competition and also has a spot among the replacements.
Who’ll take centre stage?
The inside centre position is probably spoken for by Damian de Allende, and the outside centre role is where things are really heating up.
BlitzBoks recruit Ruhan Nel has showed his ability to switch from an attacking No 13 to a more direct option and his defensive ability doesn’t need a lot of explaining. In the Stormers’ first warm-up game, Dan Kriel was on fire, while Dan du Plessis has every right to feel he can stake a claim for the inside centre berth with more game time. His running lines, strength in the tackle and carry, and a good amount of X-factor combines impressively with his eye for a gap, super pass and ability to create play for his wings.
Of all the choices facing Fleck, midfield is certainly going to be one of the toughest.
Solving the back-three puzzle: Seabelo Senatla, Leyds, SP Marais, Sergeal Petersen, JJ Engelbrecht and possibly Willemse. The Stormers have no shortage of fire-power in their back three.
Niggles to Leyds, Petersen and Senatla have given Fleck the chance to look at his other options against Boland, although it’ll take more than one practice run to figure out the ideal puzzle.
Trok-like power or fancy feet?
Juarno Augustus v Sikhumbuzo Notshe - that’s the No 8 battle that should keep both these athletes on their toes this season.
While Augustus’ nickname, Trokkie, is self-explanatory, it’s probably not fair to limit Notshe’s abilities as a loose forward to a purely silky, fine-stepping attacking one.
After their game against the Bulls at Cape Town Stadium, Fleck said he was impressed by Notshe’s physicality and involvement in the grittier parts of the game.
They sure are two different back-rowers and both boast undeniable talent
Which No 2 will be No 1?
Scarra Ntubeni was all over the place against the Bulls last week... in a good way.
Another player who hasn’t had the easiest of runs on the injury trail, one can only wonder what a full, injury-free season could do for Ntubeni’s game.
Then there’s Bongi Mbonambi, a Springbok hooker who also has his own motives to impress.
Ntubeni won’t run out at Boland Stadium tonight, but it’ll be exciting to see how he goes once Super Rugby kicks off after his performance against the men in Captain America kit.@WynonaLouw