Dale Granger for IOL
All Black Tony Brown looks certain to make his Super 14 run-on debut for the Stormers at Newlands on Saturday in emotional circumstances to earn his 88th cap against the team he played for from Dunedin, where he grew up as a boy.
Only Brown, who played 18 Tests for the All Blacks, knows what he will feel like squaring up against a Highlanders side for which he played a key role defeating the Stormers in the semifinal at Newlands in 1999, and qualifying for their only Super rugby final to date.
Today’s Highlanders, lagging in 12th position on the log, are a sorry contrast to the ’99 vintage. Rated as the poorest Kiwi side in Super rugby, they are licking their wounds after the 47-17 drubbing received at Loftus over the weekend and can expect little sympathy from ruthless Stormers rivals sensing wounded prey.
Despite injuries that have ruled JD Moller (shoulder) out of rugby for the next four months and Tonderai Chavhanga (hamstring) for four weeks, Stormers coach Rassie Erasmus suggested yesterday that his side aimed to up the tempo to sustain their surge to the semi-finals.
Erasmus said he would pick his strongest possible line-up, taking into consideration that some players were beginning to show strain like oxen labouring on the great trek to the play-offs, and were suffering niggles.
Moller and Chavhanga were among a group of nine players, including captain Jean de Villiers, Gcobani Bobo, Sireli Naqelevuki, Peter Grant, Ricky Januarie, Francois Louw and Brian Mujati, who have started all nine games for the Cape side this season.
Another three, Conrad Jantjes, Luke Watson and Andries Bekker, have started in eight and two, Schalk Burger and Adriaan Fondse, have seven starts.
“The best way of treating injuries at this stage of the season is not to drop the intensity in training, but rather asking players with niggles to sit out certain drills.
“We have to monitor it, a guy like Andries Bekker who has played a lot of rugby, closely. But we cannot rotate merely for the sake of making changes. Any changes have to be carefully calculated, so there will not be major changes to the team,” said Erasmus.
“All of the players are proud of how we have improved, but you are only as good as your last game and we have achieved nothing and reached nothing yet in round 10. What will keep us motivated is that there are a lot of goals to aim for,” he added, explaining the rationale.
“Myself, Andre Venter and Andre Vos played 33 Super 12 games in three seasons without missing one. Sometimes a player can be 27, not injured and his metabolism is right and he is in the groove and it’s lekker.
“In other instances you have players who are ageing and their careers start going downhill. The average age of our team is 24-25 and I think we are handling things correctly.”
The injuries have forced Erasmus to call up a rookie, Schalk Ferreira, who has played only 60 minutes of rugby this season, without any Super 14 combat. Dylan des Fountain, barely in double figures in Super 14 caps, looks certain to come in on the wing.
In addition Joe Pietersen, who has been playing Vodacom Cup rugby and also played in the FNB Varsity Cup final for the Maties against UCT recently, will be drafted on to the bench.
The Stormers are starting to be stretched thin and can be thankful Saturday’s game is against a side out of the running, with little incentive beyond pride to perform.
Erasmus, nevertheless, is standing firm in his conviction that the decision to play only one pre-season warm-up game against Boland, as opposed to three, makes his players fitter and sharper than rivals.
And with a window of opportunity open before tougher opposition arrive, notably the Waratahs and the Brumbies, who are still in contention for the playoffs, the Stormers are set on earning five points.
The most important factor this weekend is that the third-placed Waratahs host the second-placed Sharks in Sydney and one has to drop points in that match.
“If you get through with no injuries or punch-drunk players, there is a little bit of luck and maybe good management. On the other hand it is awful losing quality players like JD and Tonderai,” Erasmus said.
“We can go into this game saying these guys almost took 50 points at Loftus, or we can say they pushed the Sharks to a very close game and only lost by four points to the Hurricanes,” he said.
Erasmus points out that in five games this year, the Highlanders have banked a bonus point for losing by seven points or fewer.Tweet