Cape Town - The Stormers coaching group will be hoping that Springbok prop Steven Kitshoff shows signs of recovery from a hamstring injury when the squad gathers on Monday for the start of the build-up week to the first Super Rugby match of the season.
According to the supersport.com website, the Stormers travel to Pretoria to face the Bulls having notched three wins in the pre-season phase - against a False Bay and Combined Club XV two weeks ago, against the Bulls last week and the Boland Cavaliers this past Friday night.
The Cavaliers game was a 13-try affair for the Stormers, who looked sharp and confident, with several frontline players playing well in their first appearance of the new season.
However, while all the players impressed, three Boks in Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and Sikhumbuzo Notshe were forced to leave the field. In the case of the latter two coach Robbie Fleck says it was just precautionary and the players could have continued if they had to, but in the case of Kitshoff he did admit to some concern.
“It looks like Steven has injured his hamstring and the doctors will examine him on Monday to establish how serious it is,” said Fleck.
Should Kitshoff not be ready for Loftus, former Lions player Corne Fourie could find himself making his Stormers debut against the Bulls. The only off-season buy for the Stormers, the versatile Fourie, who can also play hooker, has impressed his new coaches and he did well in the games that he played in.
Fleck has some interesting selection dilemmas awaiting him this week. While he was happy with the way the anticipated first choice players went against Boland, he did admit that he wasn’t quite sure at this point whether he should risk playing too many of them in the same team in Pretoria.
That is because the Boland game was a low key exercise in comparison with the much tougher game that the second string players participated in against the Bulls in the Super Hero Sunday friendly at Cape Town Stadium.
“We will only know next Saturday night whether this game (Boland) was enough for the top guys and whether maybe they should have had a more intense game to build up with,” he said.
“Certainly there are a lot of other players who have put up their hands and are playing well and it is certainly an option for us to maybe mix and match a bit with our selection (by mixing in players who did well against the Bulls with the players who ran riot against Boland).”
What Fleck says has merit. Although Boland tried their best, the home team was hopelessly outclassed in Wellington. The Bulls could be more battle ready as their frontline players played in both the match against the Stormers and the more recent clash with the Sharks in Ballito.
But Fleck said he was pleased with the form displayed by all the players in the pre-season and he agreed his selection headaches will be ones that he would have wished for last year, when he started the new year understrength because of injury.
Apart from possibly Kitshoff, the only other top player who won’t be playing in the opening match is Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth, who will take another week or two to fully ready himself for the new season after missing part of the build-up because of injury.
“The big thing for us was that this game afforded us the opportunity of seeing the rest of the guys in action and giving them some game time. It was encouraging to see how they went,” said Fleck.
Damian Willemse played flyhalf after being used at fullback the week before and Fleck was pleased with how he went. Although Fleck is playing his cards close to his chest, it is anticipated Willemse will wear the No 10 against the Bulls as Jean-Luc du Plessis, who did well at flyhalf when he came on, has been out of rugby for a long time and it may be a risk to select him into the starting team for such a tough game.
During the course of the season we are likely to see Du Plessis take on the role of first choice pivot to enable Willemse to further his Springbok ambitions as a fullback.