Will the team be celebrating at the end of the season?
In 2010, the Stormers reached their first Super Rugby final. They ultimately lost in the final against a more experienced and fired-up Bulls team. In 2011, they qualified for their second consecutive semifinal, this time losing comprehensively to the rampaging Crusaders.
So will 2012 finally be their year?
Whilst they certainly have some more experience in knock-outs after falling in the final hurdles in recent seasons, they have also lost a number of key personnel. There is an abundance of young talent coming through the ranks, and when it comes to the big stage and the pressures of knock-out rugby, experience is often the factor that pushes the team through.
Experience is often the factor that determines whether a team will be labeled a bunch of also-rans or a bunch of Champions. The biggest departure would seem to be Jaque Fourie, whose experience and ability to marshal the defence will be sorely missed. The Stormers have relied on their resilient defence to shut teams out, and the absence of Fourie could leave them exposed in midfield.
Responsibility for leadership will now fall on Jean de Villiers, who will have to organize defensive lines from the inside centre channel. The Stormers have also lost two promising centres in Johann Sadie and Tim Whitehead, who have both left to further their careers at the Bulls and Sharks, respectively.
As much as poor player management will be blamed for these departures, it presents Juan de Jongh with the firm opportunity to cement the No.13 jersey and make it his own. Other notable players to have left include promising young centre JJ Engelbrecht and fly-half Lionel Cronje (both Bulls).
However, the departure that will most likely affect the Stormers is that of flanker Francois Louw, who has played the fetching role to great acclaim in recent years. The Stormers will enter the competition without a recognized fetcher, and this could prove to be their shortfall.
Coach Alister Coetzee’s comments that every player will have to do work at the breakdown might sound good in theory, but practically speaking, it is just not justified. A team needs a fetcher in the loose forwards; the Stormers don’t have one.
So who will make the final cut of 30 for the Super Rugby tournament? Take a look at the positions and who I feel will be selected
The Stormers have three viable options in this department. Gio Aplon has been deployed at fullback with great success in the past. His ability to be able to counterattack after fielding a high ball has tormented many teams in the past.
The return of Joe Pietersen from France, who was exceptional in the season before he left in 2010, will definitely add some spark to a much-criticized Stormers backline. Gerhard van den Heever, signed from the Bulls, has mostly played on the wing, but has been experimented with at 15.
Pietersen, with his composure under the high ball, solid boot and pace, is the most likely choice for the fullback berth.
Bryan Habana seems set to reclaim the No. 11 jersey. The former Bulls winger has not been at his best for many years, and many will criticize the departure of JJ Engelbrecht, but the player does have the experience and always tries his best on the field.
Gio Aplon looks the most likely candidate for the right-wing position, though he and Joe Pietersen (who can also play wing) can easily switch positions during a match. Gerhard van den Heever and Danie Poolman provide solid cover.
The Stormers have lost three centres this year and look slightly depleted compared to previous years. They will rely heavily on Jean de Villiers (inside centre) and Juan de Jongh (outside centre) and will be hoping that the two (who have not played a great deal together) will gel quickly as a combination.
There are numerous choices as back-up that Coetzee has used in the preseason, but it does seem as if Marcel Brache and JP du Plessis will most likely be the reserves for this position. Peter Grant, who will be returning from Japan after a few weeks, can also switch to inside centre should he be needed.
The No. 10 jersey seemed to be cursed for the Stormers last year, as well as for Western Province, the franchise’s domestic team, in the Currie Cup. No less than seven flyhalves were used in both competitions last year.
It got to the point where usual scrumhalf Dewald Duwenage was pushed into the role of pivot. This year, however, Coetsee seems to have addressed the problem and has a plethora of flyhalves at his disposal should the dreaded “curse” continue.
Peter Grant looks set to remain the first-choice flyhalf for the season. However, he will still be on duty in Japan for the opening weeks of the competition.
There remains speculation on who will wear the No. 10 jersey in the opening fixture. The two favourites appear to be Demetri Catrakilis, who made a name for himself in last year’s Currie Cup competition, and Gary van Aswegen.
Dewald Duwenage will be first-choice scrumhalf this season, but he cannot be expected to play in every single game. The Stormers have used three scrumhalves in preseason. Bolla Conradie played a superb game against his own team, the Kavaliers, in preseason and looks set to be included as the main back up.
This leaves two talented youngsters for the third scrumhalf position. Louis Schreuder looks to be the preferred option by Coetzee and looks set to be excluded at the expense of Nic Groom, who will feel himself to be extremely unlucky at not being selected.
The Stormers have a number of options in this position. Duanne Vermeleun virtually selects himself and will be first-choice once he has returned from injury and regained full fitness. Until then, Nic Koster is set to assume the role.
However, a young player who sparked in last year’s domestic competition and who shows all the skills and desire needed to succeed at this level is Nizaam Carr.
Schalk Burger will captain the team again this season and will wear the No. 6 jersey. The absence of Louw has left a gaping hole at No. 7, which will most likely be filled by Nic Koster, who will add a different dimension.
Another young player who shows enormous potential is Siya Kolisi. Kolisi burst onto the scene during last year’s Currie Cup competition and showed great strength in bursting through tackles. This young player, along with Carr, deserves a fair chance this season.
The only recognized fetcher in the group is Ruan Kitshoff, whose exclusion, despite his lack of Super Rugby experience, could be prove to be a mistake in the long run.
The Stormers have lost seasoned locks in Anton van Zyl and Adriaan Fondse. Nevertheless, the return of the towering Andries Bekker and hard-man Rynhardt Elstadt, who were a formidable pairing during last year’s competition, is a much-needed boost for the perceived weak tight-five.
De Kock Steenkamp has shown great signs of improvement this past season and will prove an able back-up. However, the emergence of Eben Etzebeth could be an ace up the Stormers’ sleeve this season.
This massive lock measures at 2.04m, and like Bekker, resembles a giant on the field. He is a bit rough around the edges and is still a work-in-progress; the Stormers will be looking forward to unleashing him during some point in the season.
Tiaan Liebenberg and Deon Fourie are the obvious choices for this position. Both bring a different dynamic to the team. Liebenberg is a robust ball carrier who will give the team forward momentum, whilst Fourie is a skillful, pacy player who almost plays like an extra loose forward. Expect the two to alternate depending on fatigue and opponents. In case of injury, youngster Siya Ntubeni will most likely get a call-up.
A position that many have criticized in recent seasons, the Stormers do have a number of options to chose from. Brok Harris will most likely be selected at tighthead ahead of talented youngster Frans Malherbe.
Harris has caused much controversy and frustration amongst Stormers supporters, who question his ability and obvious lack of technique at scrum-time. The Stormers have recruited former Sharks prop Deon Carstens, who can play on both sides of the scrum. Whilst not the obvious "superstar" prop that most supporters would have demanded, he is solid and does add much-needed experience in the position.
Expect him to be the No.1 loosehead, with another up-and-coming youngster, Stephen Kitshoff, his deputy. Wikus Blaauw, who lacked form and was plagued by injuries last season, looks set to miss out.
The Stormers will back their chances this season to go one step further and become Champions. No one will doubt their ability to do it. However, the departure of several key figures, who have been instrumental in their success these past few seasons, could hurt them when it gets to the critical stages at the end of the season.
Whilst numerous talented young players will be eager to grab their chance, it is difficult to expect this to happen immediately. It usually takes a couple of seasons to mould and gel as a team.
I expect the Stormers to do well again this season, but I feel that, once again, they will struggle to make it past the final hurdle.
So whats the prediction? Stormers will finish in the top six and will possibly make it to another semifinal. But that’s as far as it will go.
Prediction: Losing semifinalists
Predicted line-up for opening match against the Hurricanes (provided all players are fit):
15. Joe Pietersen
14. Gio Aplon
13. Juan de Jongh
12. Jean de Villiers
11. Bryan Habana
10. Gary van Aswegen
9. Dewald Duwenage
8. Duane Vermeleun
7. Nic Koster
6. Schalk Burger (c)
5. Andries Bekker
4. Rynhardt Elstadt
3. Brok Harris
2. Tiaan Liebenberg
1. Deon Carstens
16. Deon Fourie
17. Frans Malherbe
18. De Kock Steenkamp
19. Siya Kolisi
20. Bolla Conradie
21. Demetri Catrakilis
22. Gerhard van den Heever