Lionel Cronje may be the better bet at flyhalf if Western Province hope to pick up where the versatile Stormers left off.
Province will name their Currie Cup squad on Wednesday, a squad that will be missing as many as 12 players. Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Jaque Fourie, Bryan Habana, Ricky Januarie, Andries Bekker and Francois Louw have all been selected for the Tri-Nations touring party and are unavailable for the majority of the domestic competition. Peter Grant (Kobe Steel in Japan), Joe Pietersen (Bayonne in France), Sireli Naqelevuki (an undisclosed French club) and Dylan des Fountain (Aironi in Italy) have moved overseas.
The Currie Cup will provide a stern test of WP’s player and leadership depth. Those selected for Bok duty leave Province wanting for experience, while as the union’s premier pivot, Grant will also be missed.
Coach Allister Coetzee will announce his captain for the competition on Wednesday, and at present, lock Anton van Zyl is the leading candidate. Burger led the Stormers during the Super 14, but was ably assisted by leaders in various departments (Tiaan Liebenberg – front row, Bekker – lineout, Grant – vice-captain and inside backs, Habana and Fourie – outside backs). Now that all but one of those leaders are unavailable, the job may fall to Van Zyl, who despite his secondary status in the Stormers’ match 22, is viewed as powerful figure of authority.
Van Zyl’s task is easier up front, given that WP have retained most of the forwards that excelled in the Super 14. The bigger poser for Coetzee and company regards the leadership in the backline.
It comes down to priorities, and while the WP officials would never admit the fact, Super Rugby takes precedence over the Currie Cup. It’s hardly a secret that the Stormers are hoping to use Cronje as the alternative to Grant in the 2011 Super 15 (Grant will return from Japan in January) and have identified this domestic competition as an opportunity for development. It’s for this reason that Cronje must be granted sufficient opportunities in the starting flyhalf position.
Willem de Waal was the Stormers’ second-choice No 10 in the recent Super 14, but can’t offer the franchise the same attacking options as Grant. It’s for this reason that he may slip down the pecking order in 2011, as in Cronje, the Stormers and WP have a flyhalf capable of spearheading their versatile brand.
While he doesn’t boast De Waal’s accuracy at this early stage of his career, the power in Cronje’s line-kicking is encouraging. He’s also a player with a natural attacking vision, and his role as the backline catalyst should become more prominent in the coming months.
The obvious problem for Coetzee is that Cronje won’t have the benefit of experienced players on his inside or outside. Dewaldt Duvenage has played two Super Rugby seasons, but is still only 22. After his making his breakthrough this year, Tim Whitehead is likely to get more chances at No 12, but will also take some time to find his feet.
Coetzee may utilise the experienced Frikkie Welsh at 13, while Springbok Conrad Jantjes’ return will be a massive boost at the back. JJ Engelbrecht has also recovered from serious injury and will fill the void left by Naqelevuki, and Fabian Juries is also set for an extended run now that Aplon is in the Bok mix.
Louw’s elevation to the national set-up allows namesake Pieter Louw a chance to shine, while Nick Koster’s determinantion to play loose forward could see him playing blindside flank. With Burger and Louw on Bok duty, WP will counting on No 8 Duan Vermeulen to provide them with the typical go-forward.
WP play a warm-up match against the Griffons on Friday. Their first Currie Cup fixture is against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on 10 July.
By Jon Cardinelli