First real test for Super Rugby probables

Friday’s hit-out at Newlands will provide a greater insight into the Stormers and Lions’ Super Rugby aptitude.

Two matches are to be played this weekend, with the Stormers hosting the Lions on Friday and the Eastern Province Kings battling the Cheetahs on Saturday. Of the two fixtures, the former is likely to be more interesting given both teams are already involved in Super Rugby, and so any success or failure will be measured in a Super Rugby context.

This was not the case last Saturday when a Stormers side devoid of established players took on a mix and match Boland outfit in Wellington. There were some encouraging individual performances and coach Allister Coetzee was right to feel pleased, but there was nothing to take from this game in terms of the collective performance. If anything the game showed why the individuals in question, read JP du Plessis, Eben Etzebeth and several others, deserve another opportunity in the next two games where the opposition will be well-drilled and closer to that of the Super Rugby itself.

The established Stormers players will also be looking to make an impression, both from an individual and team perspective. There are several front-runners that won’t be risked because of injury while flyhalf Peter Grant is unavailable due to his club commitments in Japan. This will allow the younger players an opportunity to show they belong within the team systems and have the potential to perform at this level.

Gary van Aswegen was entrusted with the flyhalf responsibilities in the pre-season last year while Grant was away, and graduated to a starting role in the initial rounds of the Super Rugby tournament. Now he will have a chance to test himself against a Lions side that won the Currie Cup.

Coetzee has said that Schalk Burger, Nick Koster and Duane Vermeulen are likely to start in the back row against the Hurricanes in the Stormers’ first official game, but because Vermeulen is still coming back from injury, a younger player like Siya Kolisi may get a shot against the Lions.

It could also be that Coetzee begins experimenting with that back row in his quest to find an out-and-out replacement for Francois Louw, who left the franchise last year. Rohan Kitshoff and hooker Deon Fourie have been mentioned as openside options, and starting one of them against a Lions side that excelled at the breakdown in last year’s Currie Cup will serve as an excellent exercise.

Meanwhile, the Lions will also be targeting these warm-up matches against Super Rugby opposition as a springboard to the competition itself. They finished 2011 as the top domestic side in South Africa, but this does not automatically suggest that they will be a force in the coming Super Rugby tournament. Coach John Mitchell may be wary of showing his hand at this stage, but he will also want to build on that Currie Cup win and push forward with a few new ideas. How they perform against the Stormers and Cheetahs will be a good indicator of how much they’ve progressed.

Elton Jantjies’s injury will mean that Butch James occupies the flyhalf berth for the time being, but Mitchell will also be looking to involve Guy and Ross Cronje at some stage. The Lions have battled for consistency in past Super Rugby competitions and depth has been one of the major issues, so these warm-ups will also need to be approached in a balanced way; the top players will need sufficient opportunities to build some collective synergy, but the fringe players will also need game time.