With the Stormers just one week out from their opening match against the Lions, Allister Coetzee needs to pick his flyhalf now, and stick with him.
The Stormers is in a difficult position. Their most experienced flyhalf and first choice of 2010, Peter Grant is still in Japan, with his club having progressed to the semi-finals of their competition. This means that at best, Grant will only arrive in South Africa late next week should they lose this weekend.
Grant’s back up of 2010, and the flyhalf of choice in the 2010 Currie Cup season Willem de Waal, was released late last year from his contract at the union and is now playing in Italy.
Given the absence of these players, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee set out on a mission to find a flyhalf replacement for his team and hoped that 3 warm-up matches would provide him with this. Just over a week out from the competition proper, he still has no idea.
Gary van Aswegen, Elgar Watts and Lionel Cronje are the three players currently in the squad that could slot into this vital position. Elgar and Van Aswegen got the bulk of the limited opportunities in the warm-up fixtures with neither of them staking an outright claim. Of the two, only Watts has experience at senior level albeit it for a smaller union the Pumas for whom he starred in the 2010 Currie Cup season.
Cronje is a bit of an enigma in the Stormers and Western Province setup. Brought in as a U/21 Baby Bok star he was initially selected in the Stormers squad for 2010, but an unsavoury off-field incident saw him being internally disciplined and miss out on establishing himself within the team in 2010.
Even during the Currie Cup campaign, Coetzee opted for the more experienced De Waal to spearhead the Western Province assault from the flyhalf position, with Cronje getting limited opportunities at senior level, mostly relegated to the U/21 team where he featured more at fullback than flyhalf.
To cry about missed opportunities now will serve no purpose, Coetzee will need to put his head on a block, pick his flyhalf candidate and back him all the way.
Rotating all three players in the initial rounds of the Super 15 will not serve his team, or the players. Whichever one he selects, would want their coach’s backing and faith and a decent shot at making the position his own, and neither can be expected to do this with one or two opportunities only.
There is no doubt in my mind that Cronje must be part of the squad, and match-day 22, but starting him at flyhalf would be a mistake. He lacks the experience at senior level and the pace and pressure of Super rugby will be asking too much of a very talented youngster.
Van Aswegen too shows a lot of promise, but as with Cronje, has not even experienced the pressures of senior rugby at Currie Cup level, and nothing in the warm-up matches suggests that he is a prodigy – talented sure, but not a prodigy.
Elgar Watts not only starred in a talentless Puma team in the Currie Cup, but he also showed that the more pressure is piled on him, the more he steps up to the occasion as was proven when the Pumas faced the big guns in the Currie Cup.
It is a far cry from Super rugby level, but it is more than what Cronje and Van Aswegen has experienced up to now.
Cronje could easily cover flyhalf and fullback from the bench, positions he is familiar with in a union he knows the structures of.
It is time for Coetzee now to back one player, for at least the first 3 rounds of the campaign until Grant returns and is given time to settle back in, and if he is looking for that spark that might just ignite this very talented Stormers backline, he need look no further than Watts.