The Stormers No 10 jersey is Gary van Aswegen’s to lose after coach Allister Coetzee showed his hand by naming a 26-man squad to face the Kings at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday in the team’s final Super Rugby warm-up match.
Van Aswegen has won the race for the starting berth, beating out Burton Francis, Demetri Catrakilis and Kurt Coleman, and the Stormers coach confirmed that – unlike last year – Peter Grant would not automatically slot back into the run on side when he returns from Japanese club duty in March.
“Peter will still have to come and prove himself,” Coetzee said yesterday afternoon.
Van Aswegen was on the cusp of proving himself before a knee injury brought a premature end to his first Super Rugby campaign in April and, three months later, a second knee injury scuttled his season.
The Stormers won their preseason skirmish with the Lions 28-6, and the 21-year-old performed adequately for a man who has played less than three matches in 12 months.
“I think Gary did well against the Lions and also with the opportunities he had last year,” said Jean de Villiers who has assumed the captaincy in the absence of Schalk Burger. “He’s maturing well, and he has unbelievable potential.
“We’re preparing as if Bash (Peter Grant) won’t be here for the first and maybe even the second game and I think we’re settling in nicely. We’re in a better position than we were last year because the young guys are all stepping up and pushing hard for a starting berth. It’s a good position for us to be in.
“Each of the flyhalves are different and I’ve really enjoyed what each brings to the team.”
Coetzee really enjoys what Lions discard Burton Francis brings to the team, and he has elevated the 25-year-old pivot into second place on the depth chart.
“Burton has been there, done it and got the experience,” the coach said of Francis’ exposure to Super Rugby with the Bulls and then the Lions. “He came to the Stormers and grabbed his opportunity, and he’s done very well.
“I chatted to all the players who are not in this group and told them that the guys (in the 26-man squad) are technically slightly better, and that’s why they’re playing in this last round of matches.”
Catrakilis will be disappointed to have slipped out of contention after reviving Western Province’s 2011 Currie Cup campaign by scoring 150 points in the absence of four injured flyhalves.
“Demetri had a great Currie Cup season last year,” added Coetzee. “But you must understand that that was in a World Cup year. It doesn’t mean that he’s out for good – he will have an opportunity especially if we use 38 players like we did last year.”
Coetzee was unable to announce his official 30-man squad for the season ahead, though the four obvious omissions from what he says is his strongest 26-man group to take on the Kings are Grant, Burger and the injured duo of Dewaldt Duvenage (turf toe) and Juan de Jongh (jaw).
De Jongh’s absence has opened the way for Bryan Habana to make a long overdue appearance at outside centre, and the all-time leading Springbok try-scorer is looking forward to the opportunity to erase the memory of his most recent outing in the No 13 jersey.
“Pretty excited to be back at 13,” Habana said in an interview after training. “I started playing my professional rugby there at the Lions in 2004, and I played there once in 2006 for the Boks and that didn’t go too well, so hope to make (up for that) this weekend.”
The Stormers will travel to Port Elizabeth with the goal of making up for a 22-14 reverse against the Cheetahs last week, while the Kings will be determined to prove they are Super Rugby-ready when they host the SA conference champions.