Cape Town - The loss of hooker Ramone Samuels for the season and the injury to utility forward Johan du Toit did not outweigh the value that Western Province derived from their Currie Cup pre-season tour of France.
The Currie Cup champions warmed up for the defence of their domestic title with a convincing 59-14 win over Narbonne before hanging tough and then ultimately succumbing 24-7 to an international laden Montpellier team in their second match. WP trailed 14-7 going into the final quarter and coach John Dobson, who found it hard to conceal his shock at the quality of the refereeing encountered in France, felt that his team showed enough to be confident of making a strong start to the Currie Cup.
WP host the Cheetahs at Newlands on Saturday and the physicality of the Montpellier team that beat them last week provided the perfect warm-up.
“I know there has been a lot of noise around this tour and chirps about it, but we can’t deprive the guys of the bigger picture,” Dobson told SuperSport.com.
“It was a really good rugby experience. There is no question in my mind that we completed the tour as a happier and tighter team that played really well. We were down just 14-7 with a few minutes to go against a very strong Montpellier team that went out to impose themselves physically and included five Springboks (and an All Black).
“We chatted to some of the more outgoing South African players in the Montpellier line-up afterwards and they were impressed with the way we stood up to them. We also chatted to their coach Vern Cotter. They were impressed with our defence and how we refused to take a step back, plus the width to our game. There are things we need to work on, such as exiting, but we learned a lot, and sending us on tour was not an indulgence on the part of WP.”
Dobson added that the French tour had cost the union less than it would have cost them to stage pre-season friendlies against South African opposition.
“My frustration with the Currie Cup in its current format with just a single round is that we know that the competition has become a developmental competition, but six games leaves very little time. There is minimal opportunity to try things, so it was good for us to go on a two game tour that felt like a tour rather than just being another week before a game. Without this opportunity we might not have had a chance to look at our young depth.
“Herschel Jantjies (scrumhalf) and Chris Massyn (flank) were outstanding in our big win against Narbonne and that gave us an opportunity to have a good look at them. It was a massive chance to see the depth we have, and Ernst van Rhyn (flank) impressed against Montpellier.”
Talking of age-group star Van Rhyn, another young player who was part of the tour group was lock Salmaan Moerat, who captained the Junior Boks when flyhalf Damian Willemse was injured and was also part of Rassie Erasmus’ initial Springbok squad for the Rugby Championship.
“Salmaan had an interesting experience. We trained against the Boks the morning of our departure for France. We were due to fly out in the afternoon and had an opposed session against the Boks in the morning, and Cobus Wiese injured his neck,” recalled Dobson.
“I think Rassie felt sorry for us because he then unexpectedly released Salmaan to us (to replace Wiese). Salmaan was supposed to go back to the Bok base in Stellenbosch for lunch, but instead he found himself rushing home to get his passport and in the afternoon he was flying with us to France. I said to him ‘I guess when you woke this morning you didn’t think you’d be heading to Paris today’.
“Having him as part of the group in France was very beneficial to both us and him. He wasn’t part of the Stormers or WP groups much in the earlier part of the year because of his national age-group commitments, but this was a great chance to integrate him into our group and for him to get to know us and us to get to know him.”
The coming Currie Cup season is being seen as a vehicle for young Moerat to come through at senior level and add to the impressive depth the Cape union boasts in the second row. JD Schickerling is fit again and is eager to build on his strong performances last year, when he was rated by many as the best forward in the competition, and WP also still have captain Chris van Zyl on their books.
Van Zyl won’t face the Cheetahs as he is still battling with an injury picked up towards the end of Super Rugby, but he will be back next week and will lead the side again this year.
“We do need to give the likes of Salmaan an opportunity so it does create a challenge from a management perspective but Pickle (Van Zyl) is a good enough captain to lead from the bench if he has to,” said Dobson.
Van Zyl is one of a few players who won’t be available for Saturday’s opener against the Cheetahs. Samuels suffered what Dobson described as a “terrible injury” against Montpellier, while Johan du Toit, who produced an excellent cameo as a replacement for the Stormers in the last Super Rugby match, has been ruled out with an ACL injury. Both players will undergo operations.
Wiese was also due to see a specialist as he continues to struggle with the neck injury sustained in the practice against the Boks.
“They are all key forwards so it is not ideal to have suffered those injuries,” agreed Dobson. “I have yet to decide on the captaincy. Dillyn Leyds captained us against Montpellier but if he is at fullback he will be too far away to lead the team. If we choose a forward to lead us in the first game it will be one of Scarra Ntubeni or JD (Schickerling).”
Dobson said he had been impressed with the quality performance that Ntubeni produced when he replaced Samuels against Montpellier.
“Ramone went off really early so Scarra had to play almost the whole game and he really impressed me. He has had a lot of injury problems that have impacted on his momentum over the past few years but he has worked really hard on his strength and fitness and is on the way back.”
The WP team for the Cheetahs game will be named on Thursday.