Johannesburg - The Stormers currently face a scarcity of midfield resources but that could be set to change quite quickly in the build-up to their Super Rugby quarter-final at Newlands on 22 July.
According to the SuperSport website, the Stormers face the Sunwolves in their penultimate match in the league phase of the competition on Saturday evening and assistant coach Paul Feeney says it will be used to build momentum towards the play-offs rather than allowing the dead rubber nature of the fixture to be an excuse to protect players.
“We want to win each game as it comes and we want momentum going into a quarter-final,” said Feeney.
“The quarter-final is an important game and we need to build up to that and there are two ways of doing it and freshening people up. One is to rest players so they can be fresh and the other is to build confidence through performance. It is a balancing act. We are playing the Sunwolves at Newlands, so we obviously have an obligation to our crowd and to our sponsors. So our intention is to put out a strong side and build momentum.”
What the Stormers won’t have available to them this week is their full complement of centres, but the midfield that is likely to be in place for the Sunwolves clash may well be the best bet for Fleck given the requirements against a Kiwi team. Damian de Allende is back from injury and EW Viljoen is currently the only other fit centre and is expected to line up alongside De Allende, with Dan Kriel possibly being in the mix to play off the bench. Both De Allende and Viljoen are strongly built, and that will come in handy.
“Damian and EW playing together could be a handful for opponents,” agreed Feeney.
But head coach Robbie Fleck won’t be limited to those options as some quality players are expected to be back in the selection mix by quarterfinal time, including two international centres in the form of Springbok Juan de Jongh and Scotland’s Huw Jones.
The former was concussed early in the game against the Cheetahs but it was not considered serious enough to impact on his availability beyond this week’s game, while the latter, although not back in training yet, is over the hamstring injury he suffered during Scotland’s Six Nations campaign that has put him out for the entire Super Rugby season up to now.
“As far as I understand it Huw will be available to play for us if we need him even though he hasn’t played yet because he was in the squad list (forwarded to SANZAAR) at the start of the season,” said Feeney.
Jones was fairly new to Super Rugby last year and didn’t have many opportunities to prove himself, but the experience of playing for Scotland in their win over Ireland at Murrayfield and the big game against England at Twickeham (even though they lost), should have prepared him for the pressures of a Super Rugby quarter-final.
The only question mark will be over his sharpness as his comeback to training has been put back by a week. Ideally, if he was going to be used in the play-off phase, it would have been helpful to give him game time for the Stormers against the Sunwolves, or to field him in John Dobson’s Western Province team that will play the Blue Bulls in the Supersport Challenge semi-final in East London on Sunday. The Stormers do have one more league game - against the Bulls in Pretoria - before the quarterfinals but a less pressured game against the Sunwolves would be a better comeback opportunity for a player who has been out for so long.
Shaun Treeby, unavailable for this week because of injury, is also expected back in the selection mix for the quarter-final. The New Zealander accumulated more than 50 caps for the Highlanders and he was involved in some massive games for that franchise so will relish the opportunity to play a high pressure game for the Stormers should the opportunity present itself.
However, given the fact that the Stormers backs out wide are on the small side, and what has tripped up the Cape side in the past against Kiwi teams, the midfield that is expected to play on Saturday is probably the one to stick with unless, and this is a big one, Fleck is prepared to experiment with Viljoen on the wing.
Cheslin Kolbe was in outstanding form against the Cheetahs last week and scored a hattrick of tries but a backline configuration that has De Allende and De Jongh or Jones in the midfield and Viljoen on the wing will address the perennial Achilles heel (lack of physical substance out wide) against New Zealand teams with their big wings.