Stormers’ future in young hands

JON CARDINELLI writes the Stormers’ success during the initial rounds of Super Rugby will depend largely on the game management of 21-year-old flyhalf Gary van Aswegen.

‘Forget about Bash,’ said Jean de Villiers when asked about how the absence of first-choice No 10 Peter Grant had effected the Stormers’ pre-season preparations. De Villiers explained that the Cape franchise had approached the coming tournament as if Grant wouldn’t be back from Japan, and said the senior players would be backing Van Aswegen to handle the pressure in the early rounds of Super Rugby.

In his own description of the situation, head coach Allister Coetzee hasn’t come across as so unequivocally confident. He told this website two weeks ago that the young Stormers’ flyhalf contingent had failed to impress in pre-season outings against Boland, the Lions and Cheetahs. He also suggested that Grant would be needed back in the Cape sooner rather than later. ‘I hope his side wins this weekend,’ he chirped last week. ‘When you say that, they tend to lose, so I hope they win.’

Word from Japan is that Grant’s club, the Kobelco Steelers, won their play-off match against the Ricoh Black Rams last Saturday and will feature in this weekend’s All-Japan Championship semi-finals. This means that the earliest Grant will be back is next Monday (providing the Steelers lose) and 5 March at the latest (if the Steelers feature in the grand final). Either way, Grant will only be considered by the Stormers a week after his return, as Coetzee is wary of pushing him into the line-up too soon.

The decision to allow their first-choice flyhalf to play in Japan and thus compromise the Stormers’ start to the season has been discussed at length on this site. The Stormers struggled to get going last year as Grant took some time to settle when he eventually returned from Japan. You would expect a similar period of re-acclimatisation to occur in 2012.

But perhaps Grant shouldn’t be viewed as the Stormers’ premier flyhalf option any longer. Perhaps, as De Villiers has said, the Stormers should back their young pivot for the big matches. He may not have the experience of Grant, but as seen in his limited involvement with the Stormers and Western Province, he does possess a better all-round game.

Van Aswegen turned 21 last Saturday, but this will mark his second season in Super Rugby. He was a surprise replacement for Grant in early 2011 as the Stormers already had the talented Lionel Cronje on their books. The Stormers coaches said that Van Aswegen had the potential to develop into a fine flyhalf such was his game management and cool head in pressure situations. He held his own in Grant’s absence but injury then prevented him from playing for much of the year.

The Stormers are now in a position where they need Van Aswegen to come good. He’s not a rookie in the strictest sense, but the fact that he’s only 21 and boasts just a few caps will make him a target for opposing teams. The Stormers need to deliver up front this season, but they also need the man playing at No 10 to handle the pressure and take the correct options.

There’s good reason for the Stormers to feel optimistic about Van Aswegen in a decision-making position. While he may not evoke the same sense of excitement as young flyhalves like Pat Lambie, Elton Jantjies, Sias Ebersohn or Johan Goosen, he does fit into the Stormers’ pattern of play. He has the kicking game and the management skills to ensure the Cape franchise excels in a territorial approach.

The first match at Newlands should witness a clash of styles as the pragmatic Stormers host the more adventurous Hurricanes. The latter side has lost some experienced players and the decision to move Cory Jane to wing could do more harm than good considering the youth of the other backline options.

Nevertheless, the Stormers will look to squeeze and suffocate the Hurricanes by first dominating up front and then playing for territory. Van Aswegen won’t be kicking for goal this weekend (the responsibility will fall to fullback Joe Pietersen) but he will need to kick accurately out of hand.

In this respect, Coetzee will hope that Dewaldt Duvenage is fully fit and able to take his place alongside Van Aswegen in the halfbacks. Duvenage’s tactical kicking contributions would certainly ease the pressure on the young man’s shoulders.

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