Cape Town - DHL Stormers coach Robbie Fleck looks set to give Sikhumbuzo Notshe the openside flank role in Saturday’s opening Vodacom Super Rugby clash against the Vodacom Bulls at Newlands.
The so-called fetcher position was already a problem area for the Stormers even before Rynhardt Elstadt, the man earmarked for the role ever since Eddie Jones’ short stint with the Cape franchise in November, was injured against the Jaguares in a warm-up game.
Elstadt will be out of rugby until April, meaning that the Stormers need to find a No 6 for the first part of the season.
There has been a lot of speculation over who Fleck might try there first up, and until Monday it was felt that Siya Kolisi might be the man entrusted with the responsibility of being the Stormers loose-forward who plays to the ball and does most of the ball scavenging. It was a designation that Heyneke Meyer felt suited Kolisi during his stint as Springbok coach.
However, at a press conference Fleck conducted after training on Monday, Fleck hinted broadly that the Kolisi, Schalk Burger and Nizaam Carr back row combination everyone is expecting may not materialise – at least not in the opening game. He says that he had a conversation with Notshe to prime him for the task at the start of the pre-season, and Notshe has brought into it.
“We all know that Notshe can play No 8 and he is a great linking player, but there is an opportunity at No6 for him and I am keen to try it,” said Fleck.
“As an openside flank he’d have to get stuck into the dirty stuff and the dark spaces, and if he gets selected there, it will be quite a challenge for him and an adaptation, but what is important is that he’s ready to go for it. I think Sikhumbuzo playing there would be good for his allround game and his development as a player, as was the case with Neemo (Nizaam Carr) a few seasons back.
“You’ll recall that Nizaam was given the No 6 jersey during the 2014 season. It was an unfamiliar position and role for him, but it helped transform his play in the sense that he learned to play towards the ball and stick his head into rucks. He was up for the challenge and he came through it with flying colours.”
According to Fleck, the initial approach to be the team's primary ball scavenger actually came from Notshe himself.
“We discussed it long before Rynhardt was injured, way back at the beginning of the pre-season. It was Notshe who came up to ask me if he thought he should give it a go. It wasn’t just a case of him seeing a possible opening or weakness there in the squad, he really thought it would help develop his game too.”
Notshe backed up Fleck’s version of events, and told the Cape media on Monday that he had worked hard during the pre-season on getting his fitness levels up to the demands of the position. Like Carr did two years ago, he has also focussed on gaining some weight through muscle.
“I was 98 kilograms before, I am now 101, but the important thing is that it hasn’t had any impact on my pace or my ability to get around the field,” said Notshe.
“It has been good during these months to have a forwards coach in Russell Winter who played loose-forward during his playing career, and he has been a big help. I still have the speed and will still look to be carrying the ball when I can but I am not conditioned to be the work-horse that is required in the position.”
Fleck doesn’t see being entrusted with No 6 jersey as a recipe for Notshe to lose the great ball carrying and linking skills that he has become renowned for.
“Whether the openside flank is Nizaam or Notsh, or Rynhard (when he is fit again), we will be looking to that player to be quick to the breakdown, have the ability to secure possession, and to have the ability to link. Richie McCaw’s primary role for the All Blacks and Crusaders is his ball scavenging but he also carries the ball as much as anyone. That is what I will be looking for.
“It has never been an easy position to play, and it won’t become any easier as players in that position are going to be expected to be more rounded. Notshe has an amazing allround skill set and we will be utilising that even if he is the designated No 6.”
Notshe being used at No 6 could have a positive impact on the development of Kolisi, who although always touted for the role of openside flank, has never really looked comfortable when he has played there.
“Siya has played a bit at No 6 chiefly because the Springbok coach wanted to develop him there, but as a junior he was a great ball carrier, and Notshe could free him up to do what he does best,” said Fleck.
“Siya was being pressurised by the Boks to specialise at openside, but I believe his best position is 7. Apart from being a powerful ball carrier, he has good stopping power. If we can find the right No 6 and free up Siya, then it will benefit the team.”
A positive offshoot of playing Notshe at No 6 is that it adds considerably to the options available to the Stormers in the other two positions. Schalk Burger looks the likely first choice at blindside flank, which could mean Kolisi plays off the bench, but the legendary Springbok can also be played at No 8, which could make a Notshe, Kolisi and Burger combination a possibility.
What is not likely to happen, however, is Burger filling the position he played under Jake White at the Springboks.
“Scalla has played 6 most of his life and has told us he is prepared to play there if it is necessary, but to play there every week would be a challenge for him as we saw how successful he was at blindside flank and No 8 for the Boks. That doesn’t mean he will be discounted as a possible No 6, just that we don’t see him as an out and out No6 and we wouldn’t want him to specialise there at this point of his career.”
The Stormers team for the Bulls game will be announced on Thursday.
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