(As published in Matchday – the official match day programme of the DHL Stormers.)
If anyone doubted the effectiveness of DHL Stormers coach Allister Coetzee’s early season substitution policy they should just have been at the big north/south Super Rugby derby showdown with the Vodacom Bulls a couple of weeks ago.
Coetzee was criticized in some quarters for leaving Juan de Jongh on the bench and not finding a way for all three centres to play together in the Loftus cauldron. However, rugby is these days no longer about just the 15 players who play together in the starting team; it has become very much a 22-man game.
The coach had said beforehand that the way he used his bench would be crucial against a Bulls team that has always managed to grow an extra leg late in their games courtesy of their substitutions, particularly on the Highveld. But at Loftus three weeks ago the role reversal that was evident did not just revolve around the way the DHL Stormers, for once, were the team that physically bullied their arch-rivals. It was also there in the way the side just seemed to get stronger later in the game, and the way the bench was utilised, with Juan de Jongh, Nick Koster, De Kock Steenkamp and CJ van der Linde in particular all playing prominent roles, was the key.
None of those replacements was better than Springbok centre De Jongh, who produced a 15-minute cameo that effectively clinched the match for his team. De Jongh’s arrival on the field meant Jean de Villiers moved to the wing, and the attacking options that the DHL Stormers suddenly had available to them as the game opened up made a massive difference.
De Jongh did everything in his time on the field – he turned over opposition ball, he put in some crucial tackles, he made some decisive breaks. And it was his turnover of Bulls possession that led to the chip kick from Dewaldt Duvenage that put Bryan Habana in at the left corner for the match-clinching try.
‘It was an awesome feeling to win at Loftus and it was great to feel that I had made a contribution,’ recalls De Jongh. ‘If you are only going to be on the field for part of a game then you need to ensure that you make maximum impact when you are there. It makes for an interesting challenge. The home derbies against other South African teams are massive games and it was a great feeling to win one away from home, particularly after such a long time where we had gone without a win in Pretoria.’
You would expect De Jongh to be in a frustrated mood as he has only started one game this season, that being the 18-6 win over the Highlanders at Newlands, when he showed that he had lost none of his sharpness or match fitness by sitting on the bench.
‘The thing is that I know we have quality centres here at the Stormers and that there are going to be times when maybe you won’t start that often,’ says De Jongh.
‘Playing behind Jaque Fourie and Jean de Villiers is hardly an insult to you as a player. I used to idolise both of those players; they were the ones I used to sit and watch playing together for the Boks when I was still at school. It is an honour just to be rubbing shoulders with them and to be getting an opportunity to play alongside them.
‘Obviously having experienced guys like that in the side, you also learn a huge amount, and I am very lucky in that regard. Jean and Jaque are an established world-class midfield combination and I am just happy to be able to learn from them.’
Not that there isn’t a lot of competition among the trio of Springbok centres.
‘Competition is always a good thing for the team. It’s not as if when they are playing I sit on the bench and hope for them to come short. Everything is for the team and when they do well I get really excited about it. The team is not just about the 15 starters, it’s about 22, and we have seen that a few times already this season.
‘But what the competition does do is it ensures that when you do get an opportunity you sweat that little bit more to get it right, to deliver the perfect game, to make it hard for you to just be ignored. I am sure Jaque and Jean feel the same way – having me on the bench means they are pushed to be the best they can be.’
One challenge that does come with playing a regular bench role is the one that relates to retaining match fitness. De Jongh says he is spending more time in the gym than he would normally do in-season now that he is doing quite a bit of bench work.
‘Our fitness trainer Stefan du Toit has been working very closely with me over the past month or so ensuring that I make strength gains and that my conditioning is on the same level it would be if I was starting in every game. I thought when I played against the Highlanders that I showed I don’t lack match fitness.’
One of the by-products of being on the bench is that it is giving De Jongh, the youngster in the DHL Stormers midfield trio by quite some way, invaluable experience of how to prepare to play both inside and outside centre.
‘As you know, I started out as an outside centre and played most of my career there, but last year when Jaque moved down to the Cape I played quite a bit at inside. I wouldn’t really say now which one I prefer, I enjoy playing both.
‘It does make for an interesting challenge being on the bench as you have to prepare as if you are going to play both positions. When you are on the bench you also prepare as if you are going to start the game and play the whole game. So when it comes to running lines and play maps, I have a lot of preparing to do before each match and it can only be a good thing for me to absorb it all.
‘Being able to play both also means that you become more suitable to be on the bench. That is a good thing sometimes, and it would certainly be a great thing if it meant I become part of the squad that plays in a World Cup final.’ Not that De Jongh intends making a career out of being on the bench, and he knows plenty of starting opportunities will come his way shortly.
‘The coaches sat down with me at the start of the season and told me what they expected of me, they told me what I could expect from them, they told me the plan. I am happy with it and at the moment it is certainly suiting the team goal, which is what it is all about.
‘I have had a great two years. It is hard to believe that just two seasons ago I had yet to play Currie Cup rugby. Now I am into my second Super Rugby season and last year I got to make my Springbok debut against Wales. It is hard to say which was the highlight – that first game in Cardiff or the one against the All Blacks that I started at Soccer City.
‘At the moment I am not looking towards the World Cup or anything like that. We all have our own personal goals, but in this competition the priority is to just keep focused on the next match and take each week as it comes. That way we as the Stormers will put ourselves in with a chance of achieving our objective of going one better than last year by winning the competition.’ – Gavin Rich – Matchday