Coach John Dobson says Damian Willemse will suit the wet and windy conditions the Stormers are expecting when they face Connacht in a Vodacom United Rugby Championship match in Galway on Saturday.
After being utilised off the bench and at inside centre, Willemse will start at fullback at the Sportsground on Saturday as Warrick Gelant has been left out of the matchday-23 entirely due to a minor hamstring strain.
Both players have been in excellent form in the local derbies, but Dobson explained that, with a run of matches at Cape Town Stadium to follow this fixture, they decided not to risk Gelant.
“Something that came into the factor was Warrick’s hamstring,” Dobson said. “We have a string of six home games coming up. It was about weighing up the risk against the return of playing Warrick in these conditions, which aren’t his natural habitat and could do more damage to his hamstring.
“When you play into the wind, you have to try and keep the ball. You can’t do that if they put a wall of 14 players up. Warrick has his traditional counter-attacks, but we may need some territorial attacking kicks or a fullback who can smash back into the line, which Damian is well-suited for. Playing with the wind, Damian is like Warrick. He has a great tactical boot. In these conditions, Damian is as good a fullback as we could hope for.”
The Stormers have been boosted by the return to fitness of several forwards including experienced props Ali Vermaak and Neethling Fouche and No 8 Evan Roos.
Roos and scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, who rotated onto the bench in the previous round against the Lions, will both start on Saturday.
“We were conservative with Evan in the local derbies. But what we need from this game is, if you look at the conditions, a guy who is a ball-carrier and people-stopper. Evan ticks both those boxes.
“Having Herschel back, before we rotated him he was playing some outstanding rugby. I am really pleased with him, because he had a tough end-of-year. It’s a massive boost to our team that he’s playing well. [Flyhalf] Manie [Libbok] and Herschel understand each other so well.”
Connacht coach Andy Friend this week dismissed the in-form Stormers’ chances of upsetting Connacht in inclement weather.
Dobson says that while the weather prediction for Saturday has been changing daily, they are preparing for a wet-weather match.
“Yesterday, it said it would be raining in the second half on Saturday. Now it looks like it might be dry. But we are expecting a really windy game with lots of rain in the second half. It’s changing all the time, though. Yesterday was out of this world, nobody expected the snow and sleet that we got yesterday morning. But we won’t get any worse than that and we still managed to train in it.”
While the weather might be very different to what the Stormers are used to back home, Dobson says the squad has been embracing the unique experience.
“That’s been our mindset this week. We could complain about it. It’s not really a proper stadium. There’s a greyhound track around it. The weather is terrible and the wind comes in. I don’t know if you saw the footage of training yesterday, when the hail and snow were coming through.
“Or we could say to ourselves that we are not going to experience this often in rugby anymore. They have got plans for the development of the Sportsground, maybe putting a roof on it. It is really just a unique experience in a beautiful town. Playing in this environment, it’s something that top-end professionals like Steven Kitshoff and those guys don’t get to experience much. This is one of the classics of rugby. So we are going to embrace this as a great experience.”
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