Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – In typical fashion for an uncompromising player with a high pain threshold, Duane Vermeulen has optimistically suggested his shoulder or side-of-neck injury is “just a stinger”.
That was the provisional verdict - and perhaps not the most scientific one you will ever hear, with due respect to the big man - from the Stormers captain in the immediate post-match interview as his charges squeezed out a brutal but vital Super Rugby victory over the Brumbies at Newlands on Saturday.
The often ill-tempered game was in the balance in the final quarter when staple Springbok No 8 Vermeulen, traditionally not the most willing of characters to quit the battleground ahead of the final whistle, succumbed to the discomfort of a heavy knock and was replaced by Nizaam Carr for the run-in to a nail-biting 25-24 win.
Perhaps his very presence - aided by an ice pack, and his right shoulder at an uncomfortable angle - for the obligatory TV sound-bite minutes after the finish was a good sign, but only closer, more specialist examination of the problem will presumably confirm his upbeat theory.
On Vermeulen’s side is the fact that the Stormers enjoy a particularly welcome bye next weekend: they have been on the go for several weeks, including no breather yet since their entire overseas leg, and that may go a bit of the way to explaining another performance where sheer determination hugely eclipsed cutting edge for them.
Their rugby is rather joyless and has been for about four matches - but I suggested before the Brumbies heart-stopper that their fans would forgive them that drawback if they simply held off their fellow home semi-final challengers, and they achieved that objective by a whisker (and Christian Lealiifano’s late close-range conversion howler).
But under current circumstances, the rugged contribution of someone like Vermeulen is essential to their well-being ... about as much as their main weapon of dubious beauty, the scrum.
The seasoned Bok, in tandem with even more experienced international loose forward colleague Schalk Burger - who simply has no “off” button - was instrumental while still on the park in keeping the fired-up and sometimes overly cynical Brumbies at bay, and the thought of Vermeulen possibly being sidelined for any of the remainder of the ordinary-season roster is almost too ghastly for fans of the Capetonian outfit to contemplate.
While still awash with errors and varietal shortcomings, which were all too evident as they went into nervy arrears by 13 points at one stage in the first half, the Stormers showed grit and desperation in clawing back to achieve the result they needed.
There were also some better, less panicky second-half strategic calls from the management booth than had been the case in Bloemfontein last week.
On this occasion, for instance, they kept faith right to the finish in flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis, who rewarded them with a potentially decisive personal haul of 20 points and looked a composed figure in the dying minutes - perhaps empowered by not, for once, being yanked off well before the end.
In an indication of how volatile things are at the top of the overall table - and more specifically the battle for that second home semi-final, if you assume the runaway Hurricanes will end top - the Stormers surged from seventh (ahead of this round) to second, whilst the out-of-action Bulls not only relinquished the conference leadership for the moment but fell from second to sixth.
Yet the Stormers were actually eclipsed as SA “comeback kids” on the day by a wonderful turnaround in Johannesburg from the Lions, who had seemed candidates at the interval for a serious comeuppance against the Highlanders, who led 20-3.
Instead they found another gear to seize charge of the contest, aided by the infusion of Faf de Klerk and Elton Jantjies off the bench as the halfback pair, and run out 28-23 victors.
The triumph for Warren Whiteley’s men was every bit as important as the Stormers’ one, given that they were also playing overseas opponents with big playoffs aspirations.
They probably deserved better than to remain in the spot they occupied before the weekend - eighth - but at least remain firmly in the hunt themselves to nudge their way into the finals series for the first time.
If they can complete another herculean home win against the Brumbies on Saturday, Johan Ackermann’s charges will be doing the Stormers and Bulls a favour in some respects - but also keeping up their own cheeky challenge to eventually eclipse both, a little against the odds, to conference supremacy.
Outside of SA domestic interest, there is a massive clash next weekend when the Hurricanes and Chiefs, still the two teams with the most log points respectively, belatedly meet for the first time in a derby this season.
Next weekend’s matches (home teams first, all kickoffs SA time):
Friday, May 15
Blues v Bulls - 09:35
Reds v Rebels - 11:40
Saturday, May 16
Hurricanes v Chiefs - 09:35
Waratahs v Sharks - 11:40
Lions v Brumbies - 17:05
Cheetahs v Highlanders - 19:10
Byes: Stormers, Crusaders, Force
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