Stormers head to England on red alert for Bok duo
There are many threats in the Leicester Tigers team that the DHL Stormers will open their 2023/24 Investec Champions Cup campaign against on Sunday, but it is the two World Cup-winning Springboks that the Cape men are particularly wary of.
Handre Pollard, who just over a month ago was the toast of every South African household for his unerring nerve when it came to place-kicking and aspects of general play in the Springbok jersey, has been in fine form for the Tigers at No 10.
And former Free Stater Jasper Wiese, who hails initially from the Northern Cape, effectively made his name as a player and potential international playing in England, where is one of the most prolific carriers of the ball from No 8.
Unfortunately it would appear unlikely that Manie Libbok will be travelling with the Stormers, which would have given us a classic match-up between two Bok outside halves, but Stormers defence coach Norman Laker did hint that Evan Roos could be at Welford Road to face one of the men ahead of him in the pecking order to play off the back of the Bok scrum.
EXPERIENCED YOUNGS IS A BIG THREAT TOO
Regardless of whether Roos is there or not though, both Wiese and Pollard loom large in the Stormers’ visor, and as Laker pointed out, they are aided and abetted by one of the most experienced international scrumhalves in Ben Youngs, who played his final game for England in the bronze playoff game against Argentina on the eve of the World Cup final.
Youngs, now 34, wasn’t the first choice England scrumhalf at the World Cup in France, but he did get to play 127 games for his country before announcing his international retirement in the final week of the tournament.
“We’ve become used to the fact that every South African who plays for an overseas team against a South African team puts in a big effort against us, but then having those players in the opposition tends to motivate us as well,” said Laker.
“We know that Leicester are a really good team and you can see it from some of the personnel they have playing for them that they are a serious rugby side. Evan and Jasper are likely to be in contention for the Bok No 8 jersey going forward, so there are likely to be some big personal clashes.
“They are a structured team. They used to be coached by England coach Steve Borthwick, as everyone knows, but their new coach from the Brumbies is also doing well and they are well coached. I know Handre well from both coaching him and coaching against him. I coached against him for the Stormers when he was at the Bulls and coached him when he was a Junior Springbok.
“He drives every team he plays for, as he does with the Boks. Freddie Steward at fullback and Jasper, who I coached when he was a 20-year-old in Bloemfontein, are good ball carriers as well. We are obviously going to have to be on alert to stop Jasper as a ball carrier, and that is one area where Ben Youngs is also really good.
"Jasper is the top carrier in the English Premiership for a few reasons and one of those reasons is that Youngs is really good at spotting gaps for players like him and putting him into those gaps. They have a good understanding.”
STEWARD POSES BIG CHALLENGE IN THE AERIAL BATTLE
The presence of another former England international Mike Brown in the last line of defence means that Steward, who played fullback for England in the World Cup semifinal and would have been the point of difference between the teams on a wet evening had England got across the line, is likely to line up at wing against the Stormers.
Courtnall Skosan, now on the Stormers wing as he returns home to the Cape after many year after stints at the Emirates Lions and then Northampton Saints, knows Leicester really well as they are the Northampton rivals in the east midlands derby.
“They are a proud team and they draw massive crowds for European Cup games, and it is particularly massive if it’s an opening game in the competition,” said the former Springbok wing.
“I have played against the Tigers many times so I will be adding a few things here and there when we prepare for the game in video sessions etc. But any team at home is difficult, and it is a process for us. We know we are away, we know how tough it will be, but the coaches have I feel put some really good plans in place for this game that I think will give us a good chance of winning.”
With Steward and Pollard in the team it is hardly rugby rocket science to figure out that Leicester tend to do well in the aerial battles and Skosan says the Stormers will be expecting that and are preparing for it.
“100 per cent, definitely, they won’t move away from that and we have got to be ready and prepared for it. They have 23 quality players, we have 23 quality players,” said Skosan.
The Stormers leave for England on Wednesday and they will announce their team for Sunday on Friday but judging from what their coach John Dobson said after the win over Zebre last week, the selection should be some way short of full strength as the Stormers have a tough home game against the champions LaRochelle in Cape Town six days after their visit to Welford Road.