Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – The Stormers’ quest to finally go all the way to Super Rugby glory may have been seriously torpedoed by Schalk Burger’s knee injury less than quarter of an hour into their 2012 campaign.
A precise medical report on his setback was still awaited at the time of writing, but coach Allister Coetzee suggested on Saturday night that his inspirational captain may be missing for up to six weeks.
That would not be the worst outcome in the world, considering that many bad knee injuries can often be accompanied by a grim “several months out” verdict, so it seems Burger will get stuck in again with much of the lengthiest-ever Super Rugby campaign still to play.
Last year’s best-placed South African conference team, and the losing finalists in the competition a year earlier, managed to adapt to his worrying exit – Siya Kolisi played commendably off the bench – but were also desperately ragged at times as they saw off a limited Hurricanes outfit 39-26 without securing a bonus point at Newlands.
They would barely have deserved that, despite Joe Pietersen being deprived of the fourth Stormers try in the final minute by a touch-and-go TMO verdict, but at least bagged the much-needed, campaign-opening victory after having some nerve-jangling moments where it even looked as if they might incredibly be beaten.
But the savage setback of Burger, also a leading candidate for Springbok leadership later this season, going off on the buggy after his body bent over awkwardly in a tackle, could have repercussions for the whole Stormers programme if they do battle in his absence.
Suddenly there is a desperate shortage of decent-calibre open-side flanks in the franchise, considering that fellow-international Francois Louw was signed by Bath last year, to the chagrin of Newlands fans seeking an end to the Newlands trophy drought, and another versatile, experienced “loosie” customer in Pieter Louw was released as well.
It meant that Burger was always going to have to return to playing more of a fetching role this season, despite his Springbok success on the blindside when playing in tandem with Heinrich Brussow, and now even that plan has clearly been scuppered for the foreseeable future.
Coach Coetzee and the rest of the brains trust believe that several members of the pack have to take responsibility for pilfering on the deck anyway, and they did not look especially vulnerable in that area, it must be said, for the lion’s share of the Hurricanes match with a re-arranged loose trio of Duane Vermeulen, Nick Koster and substitute Kolisi.
But modern wisdom is still that you possess at least one open-side specialist and unless they look elsewhere for a stop-gap solution, the Stormers may need to summon Rohan Kitshoff, the nuggety former Griquas No 6 and Namibian World Cup player, from their Western Province side.
Burger’s broader “presence”, of course, is what is going to be missed the most in the coming weeks: his restless work-rate and physicality rubs off on everyone around him and he has made fine strides in a leadership capacity too, now less inclined toward hot-headed moments and the subsequent threat of yellow or red cards.
Certainly the Stormers became seriously prone to unusual raggedness and also bouts of poor decision-making in his absence, although it could be argued that “day one syndrome” was partly responsible for that.
The period in which Burger will apparently be sidelined includes a bye weekend in a fortnight, so that is another minor “positive”.
Before that, the Stormers entertain the Sharks in their first conference derby on Saturday night, with the visitors under heavy pressure to win after surrendering their opening fixture against the Bulls at Loftus on Friday.
Also on the radar while Burger twiddles his thumbs are the Blues (home), Lions (away) and Bulls (home), before the Capetonians open their overseas tour account against the Highlanders on April 7 – maybe that is the target they have in mind at this stage for their skipper’s return.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing