Problems mount for Stormers
The Stormers will start the last sequence of Super Rugby matches as clear favourites to win the South African conference, but the timing of the return of key players from injury could mean some gambling is going to be necessary when the knockouts arrive.
Coach Allister Coetzee confirmed after a training session at the High Performance Centre in Bellville on Monday that neither Schalk Burger nor Nick Koster have recovered sufficiently from their knee injuries to be ready to play again before the end of the league phase.
Duane Vermeulen was always only going to be back for the knockouts, so effectively the Stormers will have three key players making their return from a period of inactivity in a crucial playoff game. For Burger it will be his first match since February, when he was injured in the opening match of the competition against the Hurricanes, and Koster and Vermeulen haven’t seen action since April.
But while it would appear risky to select those players straight back into the starting team, Coetzee might not think he has an option, as Canadian No 8 Jebb Sinclair is not available for the playoff rounds. And with Nizaam Carr out for the season and Nick Fenton-Wells already in England training with Saracens, the loose-forward resources are thin.
In any event, Coetzee seems set on bringing the big guns back as soon as they are ready, and he knows full well that if the team doesn’t fire straight away, that will be where the season grinds to a halt -- as it did last year when the Crusaders comfortably won the Newlands semifinal.
“We are going to need those players and the thing about someone like Schalk is that we have seen before that he is a player who doesn’t need too much time to regain his momentum and sharpness after a period out,” said Coetzee.
“A couple of years ago he was out for four months and then when he came back it was like he had never been away. We had expected both him and Koster to be ready from the Lions game on Saturday, but unfortunately it hasn’t turned out that way, with both players still feeling pain on their knees due to bone bruising.
“We’ve been told that they will be out for another two to three weeks, which takes us to the playoffs. We expect them to start training again the week of the final league match against the Rebels. Duane was always only coming back for the first playoff fixture.”
Of course if the Stormers go completely off the tracks now there may not be a playoff fixture, so Coetzee says his priority right now is Saturday’s game against the Lions at Newlands. And he has enough potential problems for him to break out in a cold sweat, particularly at loose-forward, where the lack of available depth has been compounded by the one match suspension slapped on Rynhardt Elstadt.
“Rynhardt has been ruled out and he has started at No 7 flank for most of the season. Fortunately De Kock Steenkamp did okay there for a time during the Loftus match against the Bulls, and that is an option. We have also brought Western Province Vodacom Cup player Tyrone Holmes into the squad.”
Don Armand, who was on the bench against the Bulls, is the other loose-forward in addition to Siya Kolisi and Sinclair, but the plans to play a lock at flank could be impacted by the ankle injury that forced Eben Etzebeth to miss training on Monday. Quinn Roux was also unable to train, and Coetzee will have to assess which locks will be available before he can make a decision on blindside flank.
The good news is that Andries Bekker will definitely play. Coetzee said the Springbok had recovered well from the injury that kept him from playing against the Bulls and from taking part in the England series.
“Andries has looked really good in training so that is a big boost to us,” he said.
Also not at training on Monday were Bryan Habana, Gio Aplon and Joe Pietersen. Of those three, only Pietersen is currently indisposed as he battles with a bout of flu. Coetzee expects him to be ready, while he will try to manage Habana during the build-up week to the Lions game.
“Bryan has played every game for us this year and he was also involved in all the Springbok test matches against England, so we are going to have to find a way to manage his workload.”
One player who will almost certainly miss the Lions match is prop Steven Kitshoff, who was involved in the SA under-20 win in the Junior World Cup.
“Steven played five games in the space of two weeks and for a 20-year-old that is a lot, so I think we will give him a rest this week,” said Coetzee.