he Kick Off 2021 series has already achieved what it was set up to do for South African rugby’s preparation for the Rainbow Cup and what comes beyond that, now we get to see who makes the cut and how the coaches apply what they have learned.
The final weekend sees a plum series of fixtures that are sure to attract a lot of eyes given the entertaining rugby that has been played as well as the absorbing contests and dramatic finishes that have been the order of the day when the top teams have faced off. The final round sees a repeat of the tightly fought 2020 Currie Cup final between the Vodacom Bulls and the Cell C Sharks, this time in Durban, while in the other big game the Emirates Lions head to Cape Town Stadium to play against the DHL Stormers.
If this was a competition and the winning and losing was what mattered, you might say that the Stormers and the Sharks are the teams under pressure heading into this final week. Both the coastal teams have lost twice, both losing narrowly to the Toyota Cheetahs before also being pipped by the Lions (Sharks) and Bulls (Stormers) in games on the highveld that went down to the wire.
But if there are any supporters of those teams that are concerned about those losses they don’t understand what this preparation series is about. In both the most recent games this past weekend the Sharks and the Stormers fielded teams that had an arguably more experimental look than their opponents (certainly in the Johannesburg game that was the case).
The Lions, after a lean period, obviously feel the need to get some wins in order to establish some confidence ahead of the Rainbow Cup. Their attitude to the game against the Sharks was summed up by their coach, who said in the pre-match television interview that the result and the process held equal value for him. For Sharks coach Sean Everitt, it was all about the process.
EVERYONE GOT WHAT THEY WERE LOOKING FOR
Both coaches got what they were looking for. The Lions got their win and should also have been happy with the process, the Sharks learned some lessons about looking after their possession and were vulnerable to the counter-attack but generally they turned in a performance they should have been pleased with.
It was the same for the Sharks against the Cheetahs, and ditto the Stormers in both their defeats. The Stormers fielded a very under-strength team in the Cape Town Stadium game against a very strong Cheetah side at the start of the series and only lost to a late Frans Steyn penalty. The Cheetahs have a point to prove and they fielded their strongest side in the two games against big opposition. They also had to rely on Steyn’s boot to win against the Sharks, which was again a game where Everitt should have been particularly pleased with the style of rugby his team produced and the way the fringe players announced themselves.
Up to now the games have been about spreading the net, whereas this coming weekend the emphasis will shift slightly towards going onto a dress rehearsal footing for the Rainbow Cup. It is anticipated that the coaches will return their top players to the starting teams for it would be risky going into the Rainbow Cup with players who’ve had no rugby since January. So, which of the fringe players who have done well will make the cut? And given what they are preparing for, and that this is the final opportunity to get the onfield aspects right ahead of the Rainbow Cup, how will that impact on the joie de vivre that has reinvigorated South African rugby over the past month?
For instance, where does the man everyone is talking about, the young Shark impact front row sub Ntuthuko Mchunu, fit into the Sharks mix when Ox Nche is back in the starting mix? Will Kade Wolhuter continue as the Stormers starting flyhalf or will John Dobson return the man who played in the defeat to the Sharks in the Currie Cup semifinal to the No 10 jersey?
UNDENIABLE GROWH OF PLAYER DEPTH
The selections this week will tell us how the coaches are thinking, and we will have to wait until that happens, but what is not debatable is that they should all feel they have grown their depth and that in some positions they have plenty of options. Using the Sharks as an example, they have three flyhalves who played before Curwin Bosch made his return late in the Emirates Airlines Park game, and Boeta Chamberlain, Manie Libbok and Jordan Chait all did well.
We don’t even need to mention the scrumhalf situation at the Sharks. They are all young players, but Jayden Hendrikse, Sanele Nohamba and Grant Williams have bright futures and halfback is certainly a position where the Durbanites go deep.
Young Rynhard Jonker and Murray Koster have added depth to a potential problem area at inside centre, while Werner Kok, always a busy player with a high work rate, has become more of a threat on the wing than he was.
If the Sharks have a concern it should be the front-row, where the strides made by Mchunu over the past few weeks should not obscure the fact that the scrums remain a potential Achilles heel. Given where the overseas teams in the Rainbow Cup are likely to be strong, Everitt will want a strong showing from his first-choice pack against the Bulls.
SCRUM DEFINITELY NOT A CONCERN FOR STORMERS
The scrum is definitely not a concern for the Stormers. The back-up front row of Ali Vermaak, Scarra Ntubeni and Neethling Fouche was excellent in the first two games, and the players who replaced them, the third choice front row if you like, was as good at Loftus against a Bulls pack that was admittedly a bit disrupted and had Jacques van Rooyen packing down in the unfamiliar position of tighthead.
Marvin Orie has moved to Cape Town so the Stormers have plenty of second row depth too, and the emergence of Marcel Theunissen as an openside flank plus the imminent return of Pieter-Steph du Toit should quell any immediate concerns about the impact to the loose-forward pool of the departures of Siya Kolisi and Jaco Coetzee.
The best Stormers player at Loftus in the narrow defeat to the Bulls was Damian Willemse, who could be a key to unlocking the Stormers’ attacking potential now that he has been directed away from the “kick first” strategy of the Currie Cup. Certainly when he dovetails with whoever is at flyhalf by alternating as first receiver ala Willie le Roux the Stormers become an attacking threat.
Given the injury to Tristan Leyds when he played the first game against the Cheetahs, however, last line of defence could be a potential problem for the Stormers if Willemse is injured. At least until Warrick Gelant returns from his injury.
Saturday 27 March
Toyota Cheetahs v EP Elephants
Tafel Lager Griquas v NNC Pumas
Cell C Sharks v Vodacom Bulls
DHL Stormers v Lions