CAPE TOWN – “Jean-Luc should just be himself, he shouldn’t let the pressure get to him.”
Those were Stormers assistant coach Paul Treu’s words when asked what they’re expecting from Jean-Luc du Plessis when they face the Sunwolves at the Mong Kok Stadium on Saturday.
Du Plessis will make his first start for the Stormers this season when they take part in the first-ever Super Rugby match in Hong Kong. And while the flyhalf hasn’t played a lot of rugby this season, there doesn’t have to be a lot of questions asked about what he can produce. A reminder will do, but we don’t need a full-on introduction.
We know about his attacking ability that’s perfectly complemented with flair and excitement. We know about his ability to attack the line. About his vision and his awareness. About the way he tries things and just gets back to business regardless of how it works out.
We know about his gutsy tackles and how his work rate sees him get stuck in almost everywhere. We know about his ability with the boot, whether it’s tactical kicks or shots at goal. We know what Du Plessis can bring.
Sure, he hasn’t played a lot of rugby since undergoing surgery in the US in December. In fact, his only game time in 2018 has come in the form of two Rugby Challenge games and two performances off the bench against the Bulls and Chiefs - a game in which he played 25 minutes.
And while Treu was spot on in saying that Du Plessis - who will take over the No 10 jersey while Damian Willemse prepares for the World Rugby Under-20 Championship with the Junior Boks - just needs to be himself to do well this weekend, seeing how he goes under that pressure will also be a good show.
Yes, it’s the Sunwolves, and the opposition won’t be the biggest issue in Hong Kong, but the Stormers cannot be expecting a total walkover either.
Firstly, it’s not like the Stormers have blown the Sunwolves away every time they’ve faced them in the past. The Sunwolves will also have some confidence on their side after they put 63 points on the Reds last weekend, and they’ve shown the kind of rugby they can play if they decide to show up on the day.
They can put the opposition under pressure, and as Treu said earlier this week, the Stormers will have to be better on attack against the “smart” Sunwolves, while a big defensive effort will also be crucial.
Secondly, it might not be in Christchurch or Loftus or even Durban, but it’s still an away game. And the Stormers’ struggles away from Newlands this season have been well-documented. They’ve lost all of their away games, while their flawless record at home was also tainted with a defeat to the Chiefs.
And then there’s also the pressure that comes with heading into yet another “must-win” encounter. But with every week that passes, that “must” in must-win grows in emphasis. And it’s an even bigger goal this week than it was the last.
The Stormers are last in the South African conference and 11th on the overall standings. And although the SA conference might be extremely tight with the Jaguares, Bulls and Sharks all on 24 points and the Stormers on 23, those three teams still have a game in hand. So yeah, that’s pressure.
But if Du Plessis manages to “just be himself” on Saturday, then he’ll surely be good enough. Treu also spoke about Willemse’s absence and the loss a player like he is.
“We’re certainly going to miss Damian, he’s quite special and unique in what he does. And speaking to all the teams we’ve played over the last couple of weeks when we came back from tour, everybody was raving about his abilities as a player. He’s so unpredictable,” Treu said.
Yep, Willemse really is a special kind of talent. He indeed is unique and very, very unpredictable. And there can be no doubt that the Stormers will miss him.
But as Du Plessis prepares to fill the gap at No 10, I don’t think that excitement will disappear. After all, Du Plessis has shown the kind of player he is. He’s a special one himself. And I doubt that’ll suddenly change on Saturday, even with that pressure.