Bekker needs rest ... but when?

Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – The Stormers, still South Africa’s best hope for the 2011 Vodacom Super Rugby silverware, face some delicate “player management” issues over the coming weeks.

Head coach Allister Coetzee oftens refers enthusiastically to the “squad system” being cultivated at the franchise.

And it is true that they have not been shy to blood young and/or fringe players on crunch occasions this season: an example would be Johann Sadie’s reasonably high-standard deployment at right wing against the Crusaders.

But the Stormers also surrendered that vital home fixture on Saturday, which was not quite the springboard intended or desired ahead of their gruelling, four-match overseas tour starting with the Chiefs in Hamilton on Saturday.

With the Newlands-based outfit thus losing a bit of ground on the overall table, it is probably true to say that with it went some of the temptation - assuming it exists, and it should -- to strategically begin resting a few kingpin members of the run-on XV who have had highest workloads.

Instead the pressure only mounts for the Stormers to “win and win and win” in their remaining six regular-season matches if they are to end in a lucrative top-two slot, thus shortening the fixture workload in the newly-structured finals series and guaranteeing a home semi-final.

That is particularly sought-after status in the Stormers’ case because, unlike all of the Blues, Reds and Crusaders ahead of them on points at present, they have run out of bye weekends and face the risk of uninterrupted rugby right through to the final, should they be fortunate enough to get there for a second season in succession.

Some of their forwards require some “feet up” time, and it does not require rocket science to work out that senior lock Andries Bekker and two of their first-choice loose forwards, Francois Louw and Duane Vermeulen, are most urgent cases.

A bit like Victor Matfield at the Bulls, Bekker is the second-rower whom they like to keep on the park for the full 80 minutes, such is his value as the Stormers’ best lineout factor by a mile and also height-advantaged director of traffic when they get those impressive rolling mauls going from attacking lineouts.

With due respect to competent back-up locks like Anton van Zyl and De Kock Steenkamp, the Stormers lose some overall oomph in the pack if Bekker is an absentee. So must he simply soldier on in defiance of known medical principles?

Injuries have occasionally been blessings in disguise for coach Coetzee and his fellow strategists, forcing them to mix up their front row, for instance, and now they are at least in the rosy position of having Tiaan Liebenberg back to fight for the hooker’s berth with Deon Fourie – two extremely comforting tour presences there.

The ever-abrasive Schalk Burger has also had some time out through injury in 2011, so it is a little less necessary for the captain to be rotated at this juncture.

But Louw and Vermeulen slog on and on as starting “loosies”, a situation only aggravated because one their few others of known Super Rugby standard, Pieter Louw, is laid low for the remainder of the campaign.

Their resources are now stretched further with news that Nick Koster, beginning to make sound personal strides once more, is still nursing an ailment from the Crusaders match when he came on as a substitute and made his presence felt for a while - he could not be considered for the Chiefs match.

Not too surprisingly, considering the importance of getting the tour off to a front-foot start, the Stormers have selected their strongest possible pack under current circumstances to tackle the Chiefs, with Messrs Bekker, Louw and Vermeulen expected to produce normal, high-industry service.

Ironically the only concession they have made to “rotation” is to promote stocky, questionably-conditioned Ricky Januarie to No 9 ahead of Dewaldt Duvenage who may well get some generous game-time off the bench in Hamilton if the Springbok fails to spark.

Sooner or later, though, the Stormers may simply have to leave some of their more prize “pack” horses in the stables for the greater, longer-term good ... however reluctant they may be in the here and now.

Otherwise something is bound to give.
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