The Stormers have the chance to re-establish themselves as strong SuperRugby contenders on Saturday when they take on the mighty Crusaders at Newlands.
The Stormers made a poor start to the competition when they lost to the Bulls and the Sharks on successive weekends, leaving them with plenty of ground to catch up in the all-important South African Conference.
And they did that by beating last year’s champions, the Chiefs, and this year’s pace-setters, the Brumbies.
They now come up against the most successful side in SuperRugby history, the seven-time champion Crusaders and they will want to build on the momentum gained by their superb showing against the Brumbies by beating one of the New Zealand kingpins and really laying down a marker for the rest of the competition.
The Crusaders will also want to build on recent momentum as they too lost their two opening games before returning to form over the last fortnight with crunching wins over the Bulls and Southern Kings.
There is no doubt the Stormers are going to have to be on top of their game again this weekend.
The suspension of Steven Kitshoff for a dangerous tackle and the injury to hooker Tiaan Liebenberg means Pat Cilliers and Deon Fourie will have to team up with the impressive Frans Malherbe in matching a formidable Crusaders scrum.
The Crusaders will look to their mighty pack to provide the front-foot ball that allows such impressive athletes as Israel Dagg, Robbie Fruean, Zac Guildford, Tom Marshall and Ryan Crotty to run wild.
But the New Zealand powerhouses are also under pressure to find capable cover for injured loose forward stars Richie McCaw and Kieran Read, while ace flyhalf Dan Carter is also not on tour, having stayed in Christchurch for the birth of his first child.
For the Stormers, it’s bad enough that they’ve lost two-thirds of their front row, but it could have been even worse, with Gio Aplon, arguably their greatest attacking force, doubtful for the game after the terrible blow to the head he received in trying to tackle Brumbies man-mountain Fotu Auelua.
Aplon has been named in the starting line-up, a credit to the Hawston dynamo’s toughness, but it remains to be seen whether he will actually run out on to the field on Saturday.
The Stormers were up to the physical challenge last weekend, but the Crusaders are likely to ask different defensive questions and Allister Coetzee’s men will be looking to raise their game by another notch.
The vanquished Brumbies will have to pick themselves up from their Newlands let-down, as well as cope with the long-haul flight back to Australia, as they come up against the Bulls in Canberra on Saturday.
The Bulls, after successive losses to the Crusaders and Reds, have made a significant change in midfield with last year’s IRB Junior Player of the Year, Jan Serfontein, getting his first start having proven his ability to make the step up with two impressive cameos off the bench.
The selection of Francois Venter, who had just flown over from South Africa, ahead of Serfontein for last weekend’s match against the Reds raised eyebrows and Bulls coach Frans Ludeke has made more changes to a backline that is obviously misfiring.
Morné Steyn returns at flyhalf after the one-match experiment of playing young Louis Fouché there, while Jurgen Visser replaces Bjorn Basson on the left wing.
The selection of Lionel Mapoe on the right wing and JJ Engelbrecht at outside centre, and not the other way around, is also baffling the minds of many Bulls supporters.
Even more extraordinary is the selection of flank Deon Stegmann after team doctor Org Strauss stated earlier in the week that the openside flank would be out for between five to 10 days with a sprained ankle.
Coming after the messy Francois Hougaard situation – the scrumhalf being chosen on the bench with an injury and being unable to play – it all points to the Bulls being in a state of some disrepair.
The Southern Kings are the other South African team playing abroad this weekend and information from Wellington suggests they will face a Hurricanes side strengthened by the return of fullback André Taylor, flank Ardie Savea, hooker Dane Coles and prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen.
The Hurricanes are certainly not the Crusaders, however, and the Kings’ second tour match could be billed as one they might target for their first away victory.
But to do that, the Kings will have to be much more intense in defence. They gave the Crusaders way too much space and too much latitude at the breakdowns, and the Hurricanes backline is one of the most dangerous in the competition.
The Hurricanes’ halfback pairing of TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett is among the most highly-rated in the competition, while there is the tremendous danger of Julian Savea lurking on the wing and the steady, skilful hand of Conrad Smith in midfield.
The high-flying Cheetahs have completed the overseas portion of their campaign and the mood will be buoyant in Bloemfontein as they take on the Rebels on the back of an unprecedented three successive wins on tour.
Coach Naka Drotske is hoping his team will show the same composure and tenacity at home as they did in Invercargill, Sydney and Perth.
There certainly seems to be a new maturity in the side because this season their response to being under pressure has been to tighten up in defence and not give the game away, unlike in previous years when they became the most prolific gatherers of losing bonus points the competition has ever seen.
The Rebels have to bounce back from an awful mauling at the hands of the Sharks in Durban and coach Damian Hill’s decision to send both Kurtley Beale and Cooper Vuna home after their fist-fight on the team bus.
Hill also has to find a way to fix the problems in his team that caused 19 turnovers and 31 missed tackles in the 64-7 hammering at Kings Park.
Drotske will be looking to a resurgent Heinrich Brüssow to keep the pressure on the Rebels at the breakdowns, while the other rangy loose forwards, Phillip van der Walt and Lappies Labuschagne, and backline stars Willie le Roux, Raymond Rhule and Sarel Pretorius will be looking to stretch the Rebels defence in the same fashion as the Sharks did.
The three weekend fixtures not involving South African teams see the embattled Highlanders hosting the Reds, the Blues looking to regain their form as they visit the high-flying Chiefs and an Australian derby between the Waratahs and the Force.
Bulls (v Brumbies, 10:40): Zane Kirchner, Lionel Mapoe, JJ Engelbrecht, Jan Serfontein, Jurgen Visser, Morné Steyn, Jano Vermaak, Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter, Deon Stegmann, Juandré Kruger, Paul Willemse, Werner Kruger, Chiliboy Ralepelle, Morné Mellett. Replacements: Willie Wepener, Frik Kirsten, Wilhelm Steenkamp, Arno Botha, Ruan Snyman, Louis Fouché, Francois Venter.
Cheetahs (v Rebels, 17:05): Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Riaan Smit, Sarel Pretorius, Phillip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne, Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Coenie Oosthuisen, Rynhard Landman, Boom Prinsloo, Piet van Zyl, Burton Francis, Ryno Benjamin.
Stormers (v Crusaders, 19:10): Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Gerhard van den Heever, Elton Jantjies, Dewaldt Duvenage, Duane Vermeulen, Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi, Andries Bekker, De Kock Steenkamp, Frans Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Pat Cilliers. Replacements: Martin Bezuidenhout, Brok Harris, Don Armand, Nizaam Carr, Nic Groom, Damian de Allende, Jaco Taute.
* The Southern Kings team to play the Hurricanes at 5:35 was not available by deadline.
*Congratulations to Cyprus, who beat Bulgaria 79-10 to notch their 18th successive win and thus break the world record. Rennos Ioannides scored four tries as the Moufflons went past the previous mark of 17 wins set by New Zealand (1965-69), South Africa (1997-98) and Lithuania (2006-10). Lithuania recently had two other wins removed because they were in friendly matches.
Cyprus is also rumoured to be engaging the services of former Ireland and US Eagles coach Eddie O’Sullivan as a consultant. DM
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