Super Rugby

Siya sickener ... but Stormers spill over with leadership

Steven Kitshoff (Gallo Images)
Steven Kitshoff (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Twenty-five minutes of the inspirational World Cup-winning Springbok captain ... before a dispiriting side-lining of several weeks for Siya Kolisi.

That is anything but what would have been in the Stormers’ first-round script for Super Rugby 2020, a situation only compounded by ever-tigerish Bok hooker Bongi Mbonambi having a curtailed opening fixture against the Hurricanes too.

Kolisi, especially, would have been intended as a massive marketing/promo figure as the Newlands-based side, under the new coaching regime of John Dobson, aim to take maximum advantage of a strongly home-based initial phase (four of their first five fixtures in the shadow of Table Mountain) of this year’s competition.

The bean counters at the administratively troubled franchise will already have been fidgety over an underwhelming day-one attendance of 18 687 for the clash against foes usually among the major title contenders.

Kolisi being ripped from the on-field plans so quickly hardly helps the quest to bolster crowds in the final season of major rugby at Newlands, although the encouraging 27-0 outcome on Saturday should have pepped up Capetonian sentiment around the side this year.

With a remaining loose-forward pool (though some are in varying states of readiness at this point) comprising Pieter-Steph du Toit, Jaco Coetzee, Ernst van Rhyn, Johan du Toit, Cobus Wiese, Trokkie Augustus, Nama Xaba and others, the mere positional challenge of replacing Kolisi for the time being will not be too taxing.

It is the acting leadership capacity, of course - Kolisi has been first-choice Stormers skipper for three completed seasons already - that will require slightly deeper thought, albeit that Bok loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff is favoured to formally take charge.

Frankly, it should not be too big a deal, whoever does the job.

That is because “empowerment” and an emphasis on gut-feel decision-making in various spinal positions in the Stormers team has been a prominent part of the Newlands culture for a period harking back to the days of Allister Coetzee and perhaps even a fair bit before if you consider the methods of, for example, Alan Solomons in the early days of modern Super Rugby.

Kitshoff got his maiden opportunity to lead the troops last season, when Kolisi was unavailable at times for Bok rest-related reasons, with then-coach Robbie Fleck praising his no-frills, “lead by example” qualities - a hallmark he also reminded was present in another senior pro, the now World Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit.

Du Toit, remember, had already been identified for his captaincy credentials right at the outset of Rassie Erasmus’s two seasons as Bok head coach from 2018, when he tasked the big, unassuming utility forward with leading an experimental line-up in that dubious “Test” against Wales in Washington DC.

In accepting the post - for what was always going to be a difficult date in that capacity - Du Toit had emphasised: “I want to be a captain who ... puts his deeds where his mouth is.”

Back in the 2017 season, another stalwart Bok front-ranker in burly tighthead Frans Malherbe had also debuted as a Stormers leader, helping them to a thrilling 40-34 Bloemfontein derby victory over the Cheetahs.

His deputy that day was another yeoman, still active servant of the Newlands cause, back-three talisman Dillyn Leyds, who made some cerebral calls of his own against the Hurricanes on Saturday including ordering at quick notice the move that led to Sergeal Petersen’s try from a pinpoint Herschel Jantjies cross kick.

Other natural leaders in the Stormers’ ranks include trusty lock Chris van Zyl, who has led both the Super Rugby and Currie Cup causes on numerous occasions, and his fellow second-rower against the ‘Canes, Salmaan Moerat - a past skipper, don’t forget, of both SA Schools and the SA U20 side.

But there’s a certain new “kid” (if that’s what you can brand a gnarly 33-year-old?) on the Stormers’ block who also quite enormously enhances their mass leadership ethic: Welsh and British & Irish Lions midfield legend Jamie Roberts.

In his debut in punishing summer heat on Saturday, Roberts not only impressed with his stamina and general sense of calmness at inside centre, but he also very actively, animatedly intervened once or twice to provide tactical and motivational input.

In a SuperSport studio chat show following round one of Super Rugby on Sunday, guests Nick Mallett and Swys de Bruin drew prolonged attention to the “participative” leadership culture - one they emphasised would be no different at all under Dobson’s fledgling charge - and closely-knit hallmark of the Stormers squad as a whole.

Kolisi’s absence? It will naturally be felt ... but the situation could be significantly worse when it comes to alternative options at the Stormers’ on-field tiller.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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