Coetzee’s selection dilemma


The Force are, quite predictably, 1-7 and languishing in 14th place on the Super Rugby standings. Many pundits would have targeted this match, prior to the season, as a great time for Coetzee to give a few stalwarts a weekend pass, while simultaneously ticking off one of the rests mandated by the Springboks’ player management programme.

Captain Duane Vermeulen has already been home for one week and he will complete the third of four such rests when the Stormers blow into the NIB Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 1.45pm) for their tour-finale.

Frans Malherbe and Eben Etzebeth are due to miss two and three matches respectively before the end of the season.

The tighthead prop made his first start in last week’s 32-18 win against the Waratahs, and in the same match there were signs that fiery Etzebeth was beginning to spark in his third start of the season. Regardless, the pair must be rested at some point and the general consensus would suggest that they do so now rather than in upcoming, must-win SA Conference derbies.

Meanwhile, Cheslin Kolbe, Dillyn Leyds, Damian de Allende and Steven Kitshoff have started all eight games this season, while Scarra Ntubeni, Vincent Koch, Nic Groom, Demetri Catrakilis and Juan de Jongh each have seven starts.

The Stormers coach often talks about “building capacity” in his squad and he could indeed do so this week by starting Alistair Vermaak in place of Kitshoff with Oli Kebble covering loosehead prop from the bench, or by replacing Ntubeni with hooker Bongi Mbonambi, De Allende with centre Huw Jones, Leyds with winger Johnny Kotze or halfbacks Groom and Catrakilis with Louis Schreuder and Kurt Coleman.

Though it seems like a logical option with potential long-term benefits, history waves a red flag at the idea.

The Stormers have only once lost in Perth. They were 5-1 and fresh from a bye in 2010 when Schalk Burger led them out for the tour-opener – the Force won 16-15.

There were five changes to the side that had thumped the Cheetahs 21-8 a fortnight earlier, three of those optional.

De Kock Steenkamp reclaimed the No 4 jersey from Anton van Zyl, scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage made way for Ricky Januarie and Peter Grant had recovered from a quad injury to resume duty at No 10 in place of Willem de Waal.

Sireli Naqelevuki and JC Kritzinger filled vacancies created by injuries to fullback Joe Pietersen and loosehead prop Wicus Blaauw.

“We didn’t pitch,” Burger said after that match. Granted, the Force pitched with much better players than their current crop, including Wallaby forwards such as Nathan Sharpe, David Pocock and Ben McCalman, along with fullback James O’Connor, flyhalf David Hill and centre Ryan Cross.

But the same can be said of a Stormers line-up that included Burger, at his best, with Vermeulen and Francois Louw rounding off what was arguably the most effective back-row combination in team history, while Tiaan Liebenberg threw to Andries Bekker in the lineout, and Bryan Habana, Gio Aplon and Jaque Fourie offered firepower out wide.

On Saturday, the Stormers’ first win in Sydney since 2007 pulled them out of a three-game slump.

Following the Perth engagement, Coetzee’s team will bookend a trip to Bloemfontein to face the Cheetahs with crunch clashes against the Bulls and Brumbies at Newlands before a second bye in round 14.

Both of the latter teams top their respective conferences and are therefore placed in the top three on the standings.

There’s no doubt that Coetzee will want to deploy his best players for these matches, and rotating them out of action this week may well limit the team’s exposure to injuries.

But there will also be no doubt in the Stormers camp if they follow up a win against the defending champions by stomping all over the Force in an emphatic victory.

Sikhumbuzo Notshe has been parachuted into the touring party after flanker Michael Rhodes was sent home with a hamstring injury that will require at least one change to the run-on side.

With his first-choice back row sidelined, and Schalk Burger set to be an absentee from training for much of this week – he is attending the Laureus Sports Awards in Shanghai tomorrow as a nominee – Coetzee may well decide to shelve his rotation plans in search of selection continuity, and the momentum of a two-game winning streak. - Cape Argus

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