Hooker is only Stormers concern
The name of Springbok World Cup winning captain John Smit is being circulated as a possible inclusion in the Stormers squad for the opening Vodacom Super Rugby match against the Bulls in Pretoria towards the end of next month.
Coach Allister Coetzee confirmed at a press conference in Hermanus last week that he was looking for an extra hooker due to the injury that at that time was threatening to put Scarra Ntubeni out for four weeks and threatened to force him to miss the opening game.
Since then, however, his worst fears have been realised, with Ntubeni having to undergo an operation on Tuesday that will keep him out until April.
With Tiaan Liebenberg, the back-up Springbok hooker from last year’s Rugby Championship campaign, still unsure of whether he will be able to start the new season due to the injury that knocked him out of the end-of-year tour and the closing stages of the Currie Cup, that does leave Coetzee in a bit of a hole.
His only completely fit hooker at the moment is Deon Fourie, who led Western Province to Currie Cup silverware last season from a position in the loose-forwards.
Ntubeni’s progress was one of the shining lights of the 2012 domestic campaign, so his loss is a big blow.
“Fortunately Tiaan (Liebenberg) is making good progress and we have been pleased to see him back in training and he was able to help out at the lineouts. It looks like he may be ready for Loftus,” said Coetzee in Hermanus.
However, it looks touch and go, and Coetzee won’t want to risk it. The next player in line, WP under-19 star Freddie Kirsten, is a promising forward, but Coetzee won’t want to throw him in at the deep end in a massive Super Rugby derby before he has even played Currie Cup rugby.
That’s where Smit comes in, with sections of the Cape media speculating on Wednesday that WP’s good relationship with English club Saracens, where Smit is currently backing up former Stormers star Schalk Brits, could bring the 33-year-old into the frame on an early-season loan basis.
Of course, whether Smit would want to play Super Rugby again, particularly for the Stormers, is another story, as he is certainly not a player who needs to experience that competition or prove himself to anyone in South Africa.
The hooking situation aside, the Stormers look in rude health, though much may depend on how Schalk Burger comes through his first couple of games after sitting out almost the entire 2012 season with a troublesome knee injury that some thought might end his career.
Nizaam Carr, Siya Kolisi, Rynhardt Elstadt and Andries Bekker all joined Burger and Liebenberg at training in Hermanus, and Duane Vermeulen is of course back in the mix after sitting out the second half of last year’s Super Rugby campaign.
Add to that the Lions players who have moved down, with Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute, Ruan Botha and Pat Cilliers bolstering the depth, as does Michael Rhodes, and it appears the Stormers have options that last year they didn’t have.
Perhaps the biggest gain of all though is the growth of some of the young players on the WP books in the space of the 12 months that have passed since last year’s training camp in Hermanus.
Back then everyone was talking about young Eben Etzebeth because of his physique, but now the conversation is a different one, with the lock having established himself as one of the best players in his position in world rugby.
It’s a far cry from the last time the Stormers held a media open day at a pre-season camp, when all the talk was about what the Stormers had lost.
Back then it was just two days after the shock resignation of Rassie Erasmus as director of rugby, and on the playing side there had been no substantial gains to offset the loss of stalwart flank Francois Louw and the much spoken of departure of Johann Sadie and JJ Engelbrecht for the Bulls.
Louw would still walk into the Stormers side if he wasn’t enjoying himself so much in England, as he showed during an impressive international season with the Springboks. But Kolisi effectively stepped into the void, and so did Carr before his injury.
While Engelbrecht’s star has soared at the Bulls and the Stormers may well approach him to fill the void that will be left when Bryan Habana leaves, Sadie’s has waned, while other players who have left have also been more than capably replaced, as shown by WP’s triumph of depth in winning both the Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup last year.