Nothing friendly about Sarries test

Saracens will provide the perfect preparation for the Stormers ahead of a demanding 2009 campaign.

The Stormers failed to qualify for the play-offs in 2008 and coach Rassie Erasmus subsequently admitted that a fifth-place finish was bittersweet. It was hard to stomach losing out of a semi-final berth due to an unfavourable points-difference, but if one looked at how far the Stormers had come under new management, one had to agree that progress was being made.

Never one to stagnate, Erasmus decided to implement several changes to the 2009 pre-season schedule. The Stormers coach conceded he made an error by agreeing to one warm-up game in 2008 against Boland, and pointed out that the Stormers only got going in the third game of last year’s tournament because of his mistake.

The Cape franchise are set to play Saracens and Boland in the next two weeks, but it is the first fixture that should attract the greatest interest. Eddie Jones comes to Cape Town with a full-strength team boasting several South African big names (Cobus Visagie, Wikus van Heerden and Brad Barritt) as well the likes of Chris Jack and the inform Kiwi flyhalf Glen Jackson.

With all respect to Boland, the friendly in Wellington should be nothing but an opportunity for the Super 14 side to stretch the legs, sharpen up certain areas and rack up the big numbers. The game against Saracens, however, should indicate how this Stormers side will fare in 2009.

The difference between the build up to this season and the last is that several combinations have enjoyed the opportunity to settle. Adriaan Fondse and Andries Bekker complement each other in the second row, while Springbok team-mates Ricky Januarie and Peter Grant will have strengthened their halfback partnership after a solid 2008 season. Jean de Villiers and former Sharks centre Gcobani Bobo gelled in midfield last year while the back three of Tonderai Chavhanga, Sireli Naqelevuki and Conrad Jantjes proved a potent attacking unit.

Erasmus has opted to bring in a few more recruits in an attempt to better his squad, and given that Jantjes is currently injured, retired Springbok fullback Percy Montgomery is set to fill the gap. Duane Vermeulen was a great buy, as the Cheetahs No 8 boasts all the brute force of a traditional No 8 not to mention the ball skills of the less-conventional, modern-day back rower. Vermeulen is also a great option at the tail of the lineout, an attribute that may eventually oust Luke Watson from his starting position in the Stormers lineup.

If training drills are any indicator, Schalk Brits may be utilised as a hooker-cum-loose forward for the second year running. Schalk Ferreira is back in the fold but may be employed as utility front ranker, as word from the Stormers camp is he could be used as a hooker if required.

Keeping with the front row, Brian Mujati has recovered from injury as has loosehead JD Moller. Moller was crocked in the game against the Hurricanes last season, and it will be interesting to see how he fares against a scrumming veteran in Cobus Visagie. The challenges in this year’s regional competition are unlikely to match that of the former Bok tighthead.

Despite the success of De Villiers and Bobo in midfield, there is talk that Naqelevuki could step in at 13. The Fijian has all the bulk and the pace required to make an impression on attack, but as showcased when he played centre in the Absa Currie Cup, defence is a completely different story. Gurus like Jake White and Brendan Venter have spoken about 13 as the backline’s key defensive position, and in this aspect Bobo leaves Naqelevuki in the shade.

Erasmus told the media the rules on substitutions should be relaxed allowing both coaches to experiment with different combinations in the second half. Nick Koster, who debuted for Western Province as a loose forward in 2008, was running on the wing during last week’s practice sessions. It could be that Erasmus gives the youngster a run here on Sunday, or even begins to groom the kid for what’s becoming a specialised No 22 position where the player slots in as a back or back rower according to the situation. Epi Taione did this for the Sharks last year and several other franchises have begun to experiment in a similar manner.

Stormers spokesman Frikkie Erasmus also informed on Sunday night that Tongan Sevens recruit ‘Alipate Fatafehi has extended his stay in Cape Town and will be available for the Saracens clash. Fatafehi can play wing, centre or fullback, and considering the Stormers are a bit short on quality reserves for Naqelevuki and Chavhanga on the wing, a strong showing in a match situation this Sunday could keep the Tongan with the franchise for longer than initially expected.

By Jon Cardinelli