Cape Town – The Stormers will fire live ammunition for the first time since Robbie Fleck’s appointment as head coach when they head to George for pre-season manoeuvres against the SWD Eagles on Saturday.
This friendly is more important than usual for the Stormers because, one month from the start of the Super Rugby season, an inexperienced group will have more nagging questions than definitive answers about what lies ahead.
The team’s 15-game league schedule is bookended by visits from the Bulls and Kings on February 27 and July 16 respectively. Somewhere in between these dates, new bloods such as EW Viljoen will have to man up if the Stormers are to avoid another forgettable campaign.
Duane Vermeulen and Eddie Jones are among the best in their respective professions; neither has been replaced since putting Cape Town in the rear-view mirror last year.
Fleck is in his first season as the head coach of a senior professional team; neither of his two chief assistants has coached in Super Rugby before.
Damian de Allende will miss a chunk of the campaign with an ankle injury, robbing Super Rugby’s smallest backline of its biggest weapon. And the front-runners in the Stormers’ pool of loose forwards are devoid of a poacher and a beastly ball-carrier.
What the Stormers do have is a wildcard factor. Coached by Fleck and captained by Viljoen, Western Province’s Under-21s averaged almost five tries per game last year. Six different players crossed the line against the Free State Cheetahs in a blowout win to clinch the final.
Recent history vouches for the fact that WP’s dominance of the junior ranks does not translate into Super Rugby glory. But it is also true that, during this period, the Stormers were not guided by someone with Fleck’s fervent commitment to unfettered rugby.
And where the new coach would have, in the past, had to pitch his rugby philosophy to veterans and World Cup winners, the Stormers depth chart is now loaded with Fleck’s disciples.
These youngsters are sure to play an important part in the season ahead. The Stormers may have the benefit of an easy draw – they will not face the Jaguares or any of the five New Zealand teams during league play – but injuries and call-ups to the SA Sevens squad of key players will require rookies to hold the line at times.
Viljoen is one such player. Juan de Jongh has high hopes of making the cut to represent South Africa in the Sevens event at the Olympic Games in August, and Viljoen and Johnny Kotze will likely audition for the Stormers’ back-up role on Saturday.
The 20-year-old from Grey College has a good chance to get the nod if he displays the defensive nous that was sometimes missing from Kotze’s performances during last year’s Currie Cup.
Several of Viljoen’s 2013 SA Schools teammates are also primed to take the field in the coming weeks, including JD Schickerling, Jacques Vermeulen, Daniel du Plessis and Leolin Zas.
Many thought that Schickerling’s career was over when he suffered a serious neck injury in August of 2014. The Paarl Gym lock endured a gruelling 13-month rehabilitation programme and made his playing return late last year.
Off-season acquisition Pieter-Steph du Toit has been limited by injury to approximately 40 first-class matches over the past four seasons; Schickerling may be deployed sooner rather than later.
Vermeulen’s unique value is that he is a physical, and efficient ball-carrier. Controlling the gain-line is the top priority in modern rugby and Vermeulen alone offers the Stormers back row a direct runner on attack.
The No 12 jersey is up for grabs and the compact Du Plessis has a real chance to claim it. In De Allende’s absence, Huw Jones and Jaco Taute are next in line. Jones has just two Super Rugby starts to his name and he beat out Taute at the halfway point of last year’s Currie Cup.
Zas made his Currie Cup debut in October. A product of Hermanus High School, he approaches contact with an abrasive edge. With Seabelo Senatla and Cornal Hendricks on standby for the Blitzboks, and Dillyn Leyds doubling as a fullback option, Zas could team up with Kobus van Wyk in a hard-running wing tandem.
Super Rugby’s high attrition rate guarantees that Fleck will soon have to rely on one or more of these promising rookies to front up to the biggest challenge of their careers.