Cape Town - There is one thing that can be taken as a certainty for Western Province as they head into the Currie Cup playoffs - some good players are going to be missing out on selection.
Defence coach Norman Laker confirmed to SuperSport.com on Monday that with the possible exception of Jano Vermaak, all the players in the squad will be available for selection and are fit to participate in the semi-finals against a Blue Bulls team that will be in a vengeful mood after being humiliated in the final league match at Loftus Versfeld last weekend.
“I am not sure about Jano, but the rest of the guys are ready to play. There are no big injury problems to worry about,” said Laker.
That means that Dillyn Leyds, who missed the Pretoria trip through injury, will be up for selection. So will Juarno Augustus, who has been out since the match against the Sharks two and a half weeks ago. Springbok hooker Bongi Mbonambi will also be available after sitting out last week.
It leaves head coach John Dobson with a dilemma in several areas. Mbonambi will surely start as he is the first choice hooker at the union and a Bok to boot, but Scarra Ntubeni has been outstanding this season and has taken on a notable leadership role within the team.
Augustus has impressed in his first season of Currie Cup rugby and was making good progress before the injury that prevented him from playing the last two games. He is expected to be part of the Stormers mix next year in Super Rugby and playing in a semi-final or final would be an important stepping stone for him, but then Sikhumbuzo Notshe is a Bok and has been nothing short of brilliant when he has played for WP this season. He would be impossible to leave out, though he could be accommodated on the flank.
The really tricky selections though will be at the back, where WP have an assortment of options that would make them the envy of any other union. For instance, how many people have noted that the experienced EW Viljoen hasn’t played a single game for Province in the domestic season? He was injured at the start of the campaign but he is fit now.
His way is blocked by the form that former Sevens Bok and now a national squad member in the conventional code, Ruhan Nel, has shown in his first Currie Cup season as a specialist 15-man player. JJ Engelbrecht is a Bok who can play both centre or wing but can’t find a place in the starting team either.
Dobson also faces a dilemma at inside centre. Dan Kriel has been good for most of the year but sat out for the gifted Daniel du Plessis for the Pretoria trip. Du Plessis is highly rated and rightly so, but Loftus was his first start and the match was cut to 40 minutes. Is that enough rugby for him to displace Kriel? It will be interesting to see what Dobson does.
The biggest quandary though undeniably focuses on the fullback/flyhalf options now that Leyds is fit again. Leyds was chosen at fullback for the Loftus game but had to pull out at the last minute, and Damian Willemse played there in his absence. Most significantly, Josh Stander excelled when asked to play in the pivot position that Willemse vacated.
The Leyds, Sergeal Petersen and SP Marais back three combination has excelled for Province this season and Leyds’ X-factor from the back has been the catalyst for much of the good attacking play that the Cape team has produced. So expect that combination to be reinstalled, with Willemse asked to both dazzle with his attacking skills and control the game from pivot. But it isn’t an easy decision for Dobson to make, and there is benefit to be derived from giving Stander game time in a high pressure knock-out game given his elevation in the Stormers pecking order and a possible role for him in Super Rugby next year if there are injuries.
“Slotting all the players in is a headache, but it is a nice headache to have,” agreed Laker.
“It is early in the week and there hasn’t been much discussion around team selection so far.”
According to Laker, everyone in the WP camp is aware that Saturday will be an entirely different challenge to what Province have faced in the competition so far.
“It is tough because a semi-final is not like a pool game, you get only one opportunity and there are no second chances. That brings extra pressure. But we will stick with what we have been doing so well this season. We just have to make sure the defence is perfect, that is critical in a knock-out game. You don’t want to have to face the additional pressure that comes with falling behind when everything is on the line.
“I was happy we only conceded one try at Loftus but the game was played over 40 minutes. If we can do that over 80 minutes on Saturday that would be great. We still have improvements to make, but that is a good thing going into a semi-final.”