No experimentation likely from Coetzee
The Stormers need just one log point to be sure of semifinal qualification, and if the Brumbies don’t pick up a full house of five against the Blues, they may even start their final Super Rugby league match against the Rebels not even needing that.
But even though his team are sitting pretty and should be favoured to beat the Rebels at Newlands even if they selected a patchwork combination, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee has denied any temptation to experiment in Saturday’s match at Newlands.
And he will select No 8 Jebb Sinclair into the starting team even though the Canadian won’t be available to play there in the semifinal after Sanzar’s rather bizarre and ill-considered decision to bar him from playing in the play-offs.
Officially Sinclair was only with the Stormers until the end of the league season as there is a Sanzar ruling that players not signed for a franchise before 1 April are ineligible for the play-offs.
However the Stormers applied for a dispensation on the basis that they have suffered a major injury crisis at loose-forward, with Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Burger, Nick Koster and Nizaam Carr, all of whom can play No 8, all ruled out with injury.
With all those players – with the possible exception of Vermeulen – now considered unlikely to return for the play-offs, the Stormers had a good case; in fact, you would have to wonder that if a dispensation cannot be given in this instance, when can it be given?
Sanzar are responsible for the introduction of a Super Rugby schedule which – it is common cause among officials, coaches and players – is responsible for weakening the quality of southern hemisphere rugby, and while there is merit in the thinking behind the ruling, some give-and-take and plain common sense was surely called for in this instance.
But that common sense has not been forthcoming, and it means the Stormers will just have to soldier on, something they have done manfully during a period when the injuries should have severely hindered them but yet, with the exception of the match against the Sharks in Durban, they have somehow just kept winning.
BELIEF, DETERMINATION AND SPIRIT
That is a tribute to the spirit in the squad, something that Coetzee readily acknowledged at the start to the build-up week to the last league match, with the Stormers one point behind the overall log leaders, the Chiefs, and four ahead of the third-placed Brumbies. The South African conference situation was wrapped up this past weekend.
“There is a lot of belief, determination and spirit in the team, and that is why the management deserves credit (for the environment that has been created),” said Coetzee.
“We have faced many obstacles this season and it hasn’t been easy with some of the injuries but nobody has ever thought of giving up a single point. At no stage has there been any thought of giving anything away.”
It has been phenomenal the way the Stormers have dug in, with their last three performances against the Bulls, Lions and Cheetahs all being far from faultless and yet the sheer refusal to give up shone through like a beacon and took them to victory each time.
They should beat the Rebels in the final league game with something to spare, which will enable them to go into the knock-outs with the wind behind them, but the loose-forward problem makes it hard to see them winning against top teams like the Crusaders, Chiefs or even the Sharks – even at Newlands – in the play-offs.
With Sinclair now officially ruled out of the semis, this week might be a good time for Coetzee to give the likely replacement a run, but he is not going to do that.
“There is no thought of experimenting this week. We need a point from the fixture so we will choose Jebb at No 8 and then look at our options going forward after that,” said Coetzee.
Of course, there is also still a chance the Stormers could end top of the overall log, something that will depend on how the Chiefs do in the first game of the last weekend of league fixtures against the Hurricanes in Wellington on Friday.
If they don’t win with a bonus point, the Stormers will be able to qualify as the top finisher if they win with a bonus point against the Rebels a day later.
“We do have options at loose-forward. Siya Kolisi has played at No 8 (against the Lions). But Siya and Rynhardt Elstadt have formed such a great six and seven combination that we might look at Tyrone Holmes, Don Armand or even Deon Fourie at eight.”
Coetzee confirmed that Brok Harris is back in contention this week after recovering from his broken nose but it seems unlikely he will risk Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth even though the player is said to be 95% fit after missing the last two games because of a stiff ankle.