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Rugby | Vodacom Super Rugby

Coastal team hopes suffer setback



The smart money appears to be on the two top coastal teams dominating the battle for South African conference supremacy in Super Rugby this year, but that confidence took a severe knock in the weekend’s warm-up fixtures.

The assumption that the Stormers and the Sharks will be the ones to battle it out for home ground advantage and pole position in the knockout phases was predicated on the depth that both franchises have built up. The Sharks have Frans Steyn back and built up an impressive head of steam both at the end of the last Super Rugby season and in the 2012 Currie Cup with newcomers making an impressive contribution.

The Stormers have also benefitted in the form of the confidence that the Currie Cup title would have imbued in the younger players as well as the acquisition of key players from the Lions, and up until this past weekend there was an air of expectation running through the Cape media and rugby public.

However that may have changed just a bit after a weekend where both teams got to learn just why depth is so necessary. The Sharks were first to suffer, with their big win over the Leopards in their first warm-up game in Pietermaritzburg on Friday being overshadowed by the loss to injury of two important players in their system.

In a twist that was reminiscent of Natal’s start to the 1990 season, when both centres Dick Muir and Jeremy Thomson were injured in a warm-up game against Border at the same Woodburn Stadium where they played this past Friday, the Sharks lost captain Keegan Daniel and centre Tim Whitehead to long-term injuries.

Whitehead broke his arm and Daniel has a suspected MC Ligament injury which will be assessed on Monday. Fortunately the Sharks do have depth in both positions, but the mishaps do underline why depth is so necessary, and coach John Plumtree will be holding thumbs that there are no further setbacks when his team visits the Pumas in Nelspruit for the final warm-up fixture this coming weekend.

ETZEBETH INJURY BLOW

It looks like Frans Steyn will continue in the captaincy role in Daniels’s absence, but the loose-forward is such a fine leader that his absence will be felt. Of course, the Sharks are also without another team leader in the form of Bismarck du Plessis, whose talismanic presence won’t be available until towards mid-season as he recovers from the serious operation following an injury sustained playing for the Springboks in the first Castle Rugby Championship test against Argentina in Cape Town last August.

At least though Plumtree will know that he is going into the early part of the season in the same boat as his team’s big rivals from the Cape, who will travel to Durban for the second Super Rugby engagement of the season and repeat of last year’s Currie Cup final without Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth.

The find of the 2012 season was forced off the field during his team’s 57-0 win over the Boland Cavaliers at Cape Town Stadium at the weekend and the worst fears were confirmed on Sunday when the medical staff booked Etzebeth off for six to eight weeks with a severe ankle strain. That means the Stormers will be without him for at least the first four Super Rugby matches, which includes tough clashes against the Bulls, Sharks and Chiefs.

The Stormers do have a few options to replace Etzebeth - Rynhardt Elstadt was one of the strongest locks in the country before Etzebeth's arrival last season pushed him into a different role as a blindside flank, Michael Rhodes can play either lock or flank, and De Kock Steenkamp is versatile enough to fit in as a front lineout jumper.

While the Sharks and Stormers were winning easily against mediocre opposition while sustaining severe injury blows, the Bulls were moving without any fuss and without any major medical hiccups through an impressive outing against the Cheetahs in Polokwane.

Considering the relative merits of the opposition, the Bulls’ was by far the most impressive performance of the weekend from a South African team and on the early evidence may well be the ones to make the early running the local conference in Super Rugby.

Much though will depend on an unpredictable frenetic start to the South African competitive season which sees the Bulls host the Stormers and then the Sharks the Stormers in successive weeks. Although the Cheetahs did beat an under-strength Stormers team the previous week, the past weekend, which saw the Southern Kings well beaten by the Lions, threw up results that suggested it will be a case of a re-run of past seasons – meaning that the Stormers, Sharks and the Bulls will be the ones in contention for conference honours.

- Stormers v Boland

- Lions v Kings

- Bulls v Cheetahs

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