The Stormers are set to start their Super Rugby Unlocked campaign against the Lions with a fresh and exciting centre pairing, writes DYLAN JACK.
Following a bye week in the first round of action, the Stormers will get their campaign under way when they host the Lions at Newlands on Saturday.
Out of all the South African Super Rugby franchises, John Dobson’s side was possibly the least affected by the ins and outs during the Covid-19-enforced break. The Stormers have bid five senior players farewell as Wilco Louw, Cobus Wiese, Jean-Luc du Plessis and Dillyn Leyds have headed overseas, while Jamie Roberts has returned to Wales with the Dragons. Young hookers Schalk Erasmus and Dan Jooste have also left for the Vodacom Bulls and Sharks, respectively, while fullback David Kriel has joined Erasmus at the Bulls.
Of all the exits, Leyds and Roberts’ departures should have the biggest impact on how the Stormers set up on Saturday evening. Leyds was effectively the Stormers’ first-choice fullback earlier this year, but the shrewd signing of Springbok Warrick Gelant should plug that gap.
Gelant looked solid in the Super Fan Saturday win over the Lions, memorably scoring a try when he sliced through the defence after spotting two forwards in front of him. The 25-year-old is determined to become the ‘complete fullback’, as he puts it, and will no doubt have a positive impact on the Stormers backline.
Losing Roberts, however, makes things a bit more interesting for the Cape side. Dobson backed the Wales veteran to start every game at inside centre before the lockdown, but will now have to back former Junior Springbok Rikus Pretorius, who was utilised as a substitute in the regular season.
Thankfully for the Stormers, Pretorius is very much a like-for-like replacement for Roberts and brings a similar physicality and movement. Hopefully, in the short time spent learning under Roberts, Pretorius would have also picked a couple of tricks when it comes to his skill with ball in hand – an underrated part of the 21-year-old’s game.
As for who partners Pretorius in midfield, it looks extremely likely that Dan du Plessis will return to the starting lineup, given that Ruhan Nel has been ruled out of the fixture with a hamstring injury. Du Plessis has been battling consecutive injuries over the past couple of years, but was ironically fit to play before the Covid-19 pandemic halted the season.
Dobson has spoken highly about the 25-year-old, calling him a ‘special player’ and backing him to get national colours if he is able to keep fit and injury free.
Saturday’s match will officially be the first time that Pretorius and Du Plessis are partnered together in midfield for the Stormers, but chances are that they could be up against more experienced opponents if the Lions keep their lineup unchanged from the one that lost to the Sharks in Durban.
‘A lot of people ask me whether I enjoy playing at 12 or 13 more? My answer usually is that it depends on who the 12 is,’ Du Plessis said. ‘I enjoy playing alongside Rikus. He can bring the physical side and is actually quite fast. For a youngster, he has got quite a good head on him. I am looking forward to playing next to him.
‘I think the Lions are probably going to go with a similar centre pairing to this past weekend, which was Dan Kriel and Burger [Odendaal]. As outside centres, Burger and [Wandisile] Simelane bring two different types of games. Simelane is a more agile type of player, while Burger brings more of the physical side. It depends on whether they want to go more direct or want to take our backline on.
‘That’s the plan,’ Du Plessis added when he was asked whether fans will finally be able to see the best of him. ‘I have been working hard during the lockdown to get my body in shape. I am looking forward to getting out there. At the moment, I just want to put consecutive games together for the Stormers, before I start thinking about the Bok squad.’
Photo: Sydney Seshibedi/Gallo Images