CAPE TOWN – While the Stormers as a collective have a Super Rugby challenge to conquer when they face the Bulls at Newlands on Saturday, director of rugby Gert Smal has a special challenge for hooker Ramone Samuels - to take his game to the next level like Adriaan Strauss has.
The former Springbok captain has been playing like a man sky-high on confidence (and one that has had about 10 seasons taken off his 32 years), and his form has not only proved a valuable contribution to John Mitchell’s growing Bulls, but it’s also seen his name linked to Rassie Erasmus’ Boks and coming-out-of-retirement talks.
And while Samuels has been solid in open play and when it comes to his general work around the park, especially with ball in hand, he shared the Stormers’ lineout stats - an area that was a real concern earlier this year - since they last met their rivals at Loftus in a game they lost 33-23.
The former Lions forward also shared his talk with Smal.
“Since the Loftus game we’ve been running at 95%, so we’re growing as a lineout unit,” he said. “Our director of rugby actually came up to me (Monday morning) and said 'what stops you from performing like that?”
“That was so motivational for me. Adriaan is such a legend in South African rugby and he’s someone that I’ve looked up to since making the transition from loose forward to hooker. And now I find myself playing against him, and I see that as a huge challenge. He’s feeling refreshed and he’s enjoying his rugby, I can say the same thing.”
Samuels has been enjoying a lot more game time and has been the Stormers’ starting No 2 this season, with Bongi Mbonambi on the injury list and Scarra Ntubeni - fresh out of a long-term injury - being eased in on the bench.
“The last time we went up to Loftus things didn’t go our way, so this is definitely a game we want to target from a Stormers point of view,” Samuels explained. “They’re playing a new expansive game, and that’s a challenge, but we’ll focus on us.”
One of those things that didn’t go the Stormers’ way in Pretoria earlier this season was the driving maul.
The Bulls have been scoring some good tries from the driving maul, and when they hosted the Stormers earlier this season it was no different. They were superb in that department and scored two tries from it, and Stormers assistant coach Russell Winter said that although they’re aiming for “an all-round game” rather than just focusing on improving one area, they will have to produce a better performance at the driving maul this weekend.
“They’ve got a very good maul. We want to have an all-round game so the maul is definitely something we give attention to, but it’s not our sole focus. It’s not how we want to be identified as a team. But in saying that, our maul must improve,” Winter said.
“And that’s something we don’t want to concede. That did hurt us, and it’s something we will give attention to. We have improved since that game, we haven’t conceded a maul try since that game.”
“But we’re going to keep working.”
The Stormers have an impressive recent record against their old foes at Newlands, but Winter also said that they won’t be drawing motivation from any of their strengths or past strong performances at home this weekend.
In terms of injuries and players coming back, Winter said: “We have one or two guys coming back from injury. The likes of Eben (Etzebeth) and Bongi aren’t ready yet, but Jano (Vermaak) who cracked his rib two weeks ago is almost ready. He could maybe have passed fit (for this weekend) but I think they’ll give him another week.”
“Justin Phillips is also coming back now after his rib injury, and the guys who played in the SuperSport Rugby Challenge like Jean-Luc (du Plessis) is up for selection.”
“Frans (Malherbe) is also training with us, this is his second week and he’s definitely improving and getting some fitness back.”