Willemse shifts as Gelant returns to Stormers starting team

rugby19 January 2024 14:29| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Damian Willemse © Getty Images

Damian Willemse has moved back to inside centre to accommodate the return of Warrick Gelant as the DHL Stormers’ starting fullback for Saturday’s final Investec Champions Cup Pool 4 clash with Stade Francais in Paris.

Although the team looks a strong one and no-one would argue it is not a full strength outfit, head coach John Dobson has made more than the anticipated number of changes to the side that started last week’s 31-24 win over Sale Sharks at the DHL Stadium. In all, if you factor in positional switches, there are eight changes to the side that started in Cape Town six days ago.

The changes could be as much down to a perception he needs to pay attention to the northern hemisphere conditions as any need to rotate or freshen up a squad that has won four tight, close and bruising games in the last five weeks.

With regards to heeding the northern conditions, with a temperature of -2 degrees predicted earlier in the week for the time of kick-off on Saturday night, it could explain the selection of Keke Morabe ahead of Hacjivah Dayimani at No 8. Morabe was outstanding the last time the Stormers were overseas, which was the narrow loss to Leicester Tigers in the opening round of the Champions Cup back in early December.

Hendre Stassen, who started in that game at Welford Road and was another standout, finds place on the bench this week, alongside Ben-Jason Dixon and Dayimani. Dixon moves to the bench to allow Willie Engelbrecht to get a starting opportunity this week. Stassen will be familiar with the stadium and opposition as he played for Stade Francais in 2018 and 2019.

With Stefan Ungerer tailored for northern conditions as the back-up scrumhalf, the Stormers’ bench is a strong one. Dobson has gone for a 6/2 split between forwards and backs, with Suleiman Hartzenberg the only cover at outside back.

Hartzenberg moves to the bench to accommodate the shift Dan du Plessis has had to make in order to accommodate Willemse at No 12. It is the starting team that will draw most attention, with an additional unexpected change being the return of Angelo Davids, the former Blitzbok Sevens star, on the right wing. Davids has been out for some time through injury. Hartzenberg would also have been a candidate for the wing, as it is a position he excels in, but perhaps Dobson felt Hartzenberg’s greater versatility made him a better bench cover than Davids.

Another change comes at hooker, where Joseph Dweba’s return to the starting team was largely expected even though Andre-Hugo Venter, who plays off the bench in Paris, played well against Sale when he got a starting opportunity last week.

Ben Loader returns to the left wing for the first time since he was injured against La Rochelle in mid December in the other change to the starting team. Springbok flyhalf Manie Libbok, as reported earlier in the week, will be coinciding the occasion of his return to France, the scene of the Bok World Cup triumph of which he was part, with the celebration of his landmark 50th cap for the Stormers.

The Stormers need to win the game to be sure of second place in Pool 4, which will give them a home game in the round of 16. They are not yet completely certain of an advance to the first playoff stage, with last week's gift bonus point picked up by Sale keeping the English team in the equation, but even just a losing bonus point against Stade will be enough to make sure.

DHL Stormers team: Warrick Gelant, Angelo Davids, Dan du Plessis, Damian Willemse, Ben Loader, Manie Libbok, Herschel Jantjies, Keke Morabe, Willie Engelbrecht, Deon Fourie (captain), Ruben van Heerden, Adre Smith, Neethling Fouche, Joseph Dweba, Sti Sithole. Replacements: Andre-Hugo Venter, Kwenzo Blose, Brok Harris, Hendre Stassen, Ben-Jason Dixon, Hacjivah Dayimani, Stefan Ungerer, Suleiman Hartzenberg.