Dale Granger reports the air turned blue in the Stormers camp this week when Schalk Burger was told to switch to No 8 with Luke Watson reverting to his customary flank-fetcher role for Friday’s Super 14 game against the Chiefs in Hamilton.
It proves Burger, the Cape side’s only Springbok representative from the Rugby World Cup final, won the battle. In the starting line-up Burger returns from a two-match suspension at No 6 and Watson has gone to the back of the scrum at No 8 jersey. Robbie Diack drops down to the bench, displacing Pieter Myburgh.
Stormers spokesperson Frikkie Erasmus on Wednesday denied all knowledge of a rift in the camp, but it was reliably learnt that Burger took offence at being switched from his preferred openside flank role to No 8, the position he played at school.
The Stormers announced their team on Wednesday, showing only one change from the side that beat the Reds in Brisbane last weekend.
Before the Stormers’ opening match of the Super 14 season, against the Bulls, Erasmus selected Watson at 8, with Burger at 6, adding: “Luke Watson will play No 8 throughout the season”.
However, he since did a U-turn, and his latest line is: “why does everyone make a fuss of the numbers on the back of a jersey? I played at 6, 7 and 8 during my career, and they are all the same”.
Clearly, the current crop of players, including Burger and Watson, don’t agree with him, but in terms of swaying Erasmus’ mind, Burger has appeared to have won.
It has been learnt that Burger, who played No 6 during the World Cup and most of his Springbok career, wants to play that role for the Stormers in the Super 14, but things have been going on behind the scenes.
For the past week the Stormers have declined all requests from the South African, New Zealand and Australian media to interview Burger, saying they wanted the player to focus on his game against the Chiefs.
The Stormers have this season adopted a draconian media policy, with access to Erasmus extremely limited, but that has now evolved to including the players, as all media enquiries and requests have to be done through Frikkie Erasmus.
Burger last season returned from a potentially career-ending spinal injury to feature in all 13 of the Stormers’ Super 14 matches. In every instance, however, Burger played blindside flank with Watson on the open side.
At the same time the Stormers appear to have a leadership crisis among their senior players involving captain Jean de Villiers, Burger and Watson.
Last year, after a meeting between Erasmus and assistant coaches Gary Gold and Brendan Venter, it was initially agreed that Burger would succeed Watson as captain.
Subsequently, however, De Villiers was named skipper. This was apparently after Erasmus and his right-hand man, Frikkie Erasmus, had met with Watson’s father, Cheeky, to discuss his son’s future at Newlands and the role he should play in the Stormers side.
Cheeky is understood to have told the coach that he had no problem with Luke not captaining the side, provided Burger did not have a higher profile than him.
Nevertheless, Burger’s star status and popularity in the team continues to challenge Erasmus’ style of coaching. The former Cheetahs mentor believes that his megastar the highest paid rugby player in South Africa, with annual earnings of up to R6-million from contracts and endorsements should be cut down to size as a rank and file member of the team.
However, Burger is still the most sought-after Stormers player from fans wanting autographs and agents negotiating public appearances.
This is believed to have irked Springbok teammate De Villiers, who wants a higher profile in the public eye and the media.
The Chiefs have also made a change at No8 for Friday’s match.
The powerful Sione Lauaki, a key player driving the pack over the advantage line, but a man who was cut to ground by the Cheetahs last weekend, has been benched for the more versatile Liam Messam.
Centre Richard Kahui also returns from an ankle injury and coach Ian Foster has made an eye-opening positional change by switching All Black Mils Muliaina from fullback to inside centre. This brings Lelia Masaga in on the wing with Soseni Anesi swapping the No11 jersey for No15.
“It is great to welcome back Richard. Another pleasing aspect is seeing Sosene returning to form. He seems to have recovered well from his recent neck and ankle strains and is looking fast again. Sos also enjoyed some time at fullback last week, which made it easy to go with this backline,” said Foster.
“While it is a tough call on Callum Bruce going to the reserves, I’m sure he will be an effective player for us off the bench.
At the same time Sione has started in four games to date, so it is time for him to freshen up a bit. I’m expecting he will also play an important role for us off the bench.”Tweet