Etzebeth injury leaves Coetzee pondering
Eben Etzebeth was probably one of the last players that DHL Stormers coach Allister Coetzee would like to have seen ruled out of the difficult first part of the Super Rugby season that his team faces.
Yet that is the reality after the Springbok lock, the find of South African rugby in 2012 and a key man for any team he plays for in the more physical games, limped off in considerable discomfort during the friendly against the Regent Boland Cavaliers at Cape Town Stadium on Saturday.
Coetzee already admitted at the post-match press conference that he was nervous, and on Sunday what he had been fearing was confirmed.
Etzebeth has been ruled out for six to eight weeks with an ankle strain, which means he will miss at least the first four games in the southern hemisphere competition.
That will include the three tough opening matches against the Bulls (away), the Sharks (away) and the Chiefs (home).
The first two mentioned teams are likely to be the Stormers’ biggest challengers for the South African conference title on which they have had a vice-like hold over the past two seasons, while the last mentioned, the Chiefs, are the tournament champions.
The Kiwis sent out a warning to the other competing teams with a good win this weekend over the previous champions, the Reds.
All of them will be physical games, and Etzebeth is a key man in the Stormers’ physical game.
However, much may depend on who else is available, and Coetzee will be hoping that Schalk Burger makes a trouble-free return to training this week.
Should he do that, and show up well in the opposed session planned with the Western Province Vodacom Cup team on Wednesday, the Stormers could still be in a good space when they go to Loftus for the tournament opener against the Bulls on 22 February.
A Burger return would mean that Coetzee can move Rynhard Elstadt from blindside flank back to the No 4 lock position where he performed so well during the 2011 season.
It isn’t ideal, for on the evidence of his performance in the 57-0 win over the Cavaliers, Elstadt has lost a bit of weight in his quest to specialise as a loose forward.
But if Burger is fit, Elstadt moving to lock and Burger, Siya Kolisi and Duane Vermuelen teaming up in the back row would appear the perfect solution to the conundrum caused Coetzee by Etzebeth’s injury.
Michael Rhodes, formerly of the Lions and Sharks, is another option both as a lock and a blindside flank, and should feature in the squad that travels to Loftus.
Who to replace Etzebeth is not Coetzee’s only headache as he heads into the final fortnight before the tournament kick-off.
Elton Jantjies returned to Cape Town on Sunday after taking compassionate leave following the unexpected death of his father two weeks ago and there will be a lot of pressure on him to quickly make himself at home with the Stormers' playing style during training.
Kurt Coleman was the man of the match against the Cheetahs in the first warm-up game but was a lot less impressive as the starting flyhalf against the Cavaliers, missing some easy kicks and then losing his authority in general play as he lost confidence.
It seems unlikely that Peter Grant will be back in time to face the Bulls, and Joe Pietersen’s more reliable goalkicking won’t be accommodated because he is behind Jaco Taute in the pecking order at fullback, so it looks like Coetzee has little option but to throw Jantjies in at the deep end in Pretoria even though it would be his first game in Stormers clothing.
Coetzee is also waiting on Juan de Jongh, who is out with a grade 2 hamstring injury and appears unlikely to play against the Bulls.
If Grant isn’t back by then, Damian de Allende should continue in the No 12 jersey with Jean de Villiers playing outside him.
Injured Bok hooker Tiaan Liebenberg should just about be ready in time to play at Loftus, but it seems more likely that Deon Fourie will start in that game with Martin Bezuidenhout, who has made an impressive start to his stint in the Cape, playing off the bench.
The injury blow to Etzebeth was partially off-set in the nine-try rout of the Bolanders by the return to form and fitness of Andries Bekker, Kolisi and Elstadt, with the last mentioned being the pick of the players in the first half.