Robbie Fleck believes that Damian Willemse is the best fullback in the country and that he will offer the Stormers a host of options against a strong tactical Vodacom Bulls side. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The winner of the derby at Newlands this Saturday will go to the top of the South African conference. Fleck made this point when addressing the media on Thursday.
The Bulls have lost three games this season, while the Stormers have lost five. Both sides, however, are still in the running for a top-place finish in the conference and ultimately a home quarter-final.
Does this matter in the grand scheme of things, though?
Rassie Erasmus recently confirmed that only 80% of the World Cup squad have been selected, and that there is time yet for players to force their way into the final group of 31. Derby matches such as the one staged at Newlands this Saturday should be treated as an opportunity to impress the Springbok coach ahead of the global tournament in Japan.
It would have been great to see Handré Pollard – the Bok No 10 incumbent – facing off against Willemse on Saturday. Both Pollard and Willemse – if fit – will go to the World Cup. If Pollard and Elton Jantjies break down during that tournament, Willemse may well be asked to start at No 10.
On Thursday, however, Fleck confirmed that Jean-Luc du Plessis will start at flyhalf against the Bulls and that Josh Stander will provide cover from the bench. Willemse has been selected as an out-and-out fullback, and it’s at No 15 where Fleck feels that the 20-year-old adds the most value.
In fact, Fleck believes that there isn’t a better South African option competing in Super Rugby.
‘He’s the No 1 fullback in the country,’ Fleck stated unequivocally.
There’s been a lot of debate about when Fleck is going to back the youngster regularly at No 10. After confirming his selection of Du Plessis on Thursday, the Stormers coach felt the need to make this point about Willemse.
‘He’s got a big boot and is the best player under the high ball – at least he is in our side. He will continue to play a roving role on attack, coming in at first-receiver every now and then, but I feel that this is where he is best utilised [at 15].’
Meanwhile, the Bulls have opted for Ivan van Zyl over Embrose Papier at No 9. This suggests that the star-studded side will look to out-kick the Stormers this Saturday – just as they did in their resounding 40-3 victory against the Cape side in round one.
Pollard and Jesse Kriel were outstanding in that fixture. Fleck feels that the Stormers will match the Bulls’ kicking game on Saturday, and that the Cape side’s defence has what it takes to repel the men from the north.
‘The combination of Herschel Jantjies, Jean-Luc du Plessis and Damian de Allende built up some momentum when we were on tour in Australasia,’ said Fleck. ‘We saw how well they did in the win against the Rebels, and we’re happy with what Jean-Luc can offer us tactically from the No 10 position.
‘Herschel has been the best scrumhalf in the country this season,’ Fleck added. ‘I’d say that he deserves an invite to the next Springbok alignment camp [which will be staged in two weeks’ time].’
The Stormers were outplayed up front in the previous derby against the Bulls. Last week they were taught another lesson at the collisions and breakdowns by a streetsmart Brumbies pack.
While the Stormers have welcomed back a few Bok forwards this week, the Bulls may fancy their chances of a rare win at Newlands. Duane Vermeulen and Marco Van Staden should give the visitors an edge in these departments. On the back of a solid platform, Pollard could have the room to implement the Bulls’ kicking game and create scoring chances.
‘We have to be accurate at the clean-outs,’ Fleck said of his team’s need to improve. ‘I believe that we’ve got the players to combat that threat.’
Captain Siya Kolisi, who played alongside Vermeulen and Van Staden at the Boks last year, highlighted the importance of this breakdown battle.
‘South African derbies are tougher for us than playing against New Zealand teams,’ Kolisi said. ‘We need to get it right in that area. We want to play a running game, and to do that, we need clean ball.
‘There are a couple of things that we need to get right to ensure that we finish well and get the desired result.’ he added.
The Stormers looked to be in control of last week’s game against the Brumbies, but faded badly towards the end and lost 19-17. The Bulls, who had a bye last week, may try to attack a tiring Stormers side in the fourth quarter this coming Saturday.
STORMERS vs BULLS, CAPE TOWN (Saturday, 3:05pm)
Stormers – 15 Damian Willemse, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Jean-Luc du Plessis, 9 Herschel Jantjies, 8 Kobus van Dyk, 7 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 6 Siya Kolisi (c), 5 JD Schickerling, 4 Cobus Wiese, 3 Frans Malherbe, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Subs: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Corne Fourie, 18 Wilco Louw, 19 Eben Etzebeth, 20 Ernst van Rhyn, 21 Justin Phillips, 22 Joshua Stander, 23 Seabelo Senatla.
Bulls – 15 Warrick Gelant, 14 Johnny Kotze, 13 Jesse Kriel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jade Stighling, 10 Handré Pollard (c), 9 Ivan van Zyl, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Hanro Liebenberg, 6 Marco van Staden, 5 RG Snyman, 4 Jannes Kirsten, 3 Trevor Nyakane, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Subs: 16 Johan Grobbelaar, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Wiehan Herbst, 19 Thembelani Bholi, 20 Paul Schoeman, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Manie Libbok, 23 Divan Rossouw.
Photo: Gerhard Duraan/BackpagePix