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    S15: Rassie sweats as Boks start to drop

    2019-04-27 21:21

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – The shoulder injury to SA Rugby Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit would probably have been front of mind to Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus after watching the Super Rugby derby between old adversaries the Stormers and Bulls at Newlands on Saturday.

    It was the most significant “cloud” on an otherwise dazzling autumn afternoon, although there was further reason for a furrowed brow from Erasmus as another Test stalwart, outside centre Jesse Kriel, also left the lively enough battle before it ended – the Stormers deservedly prevailing 24-23 -- with a lower leg or ankle problem.

    Fuller details of the two Boks’ setbacks (if they even end up being that at all) are only likely to become known early in the new week.

    But it is unusual for someone like Du Toit, a tough-as-teak customer, to leave the park prematurely (after an awkward aerial collision and then fall to the turf in the second half) for reasons other than routine substitution, while Kriel is generally someone blessed with consistently good fitness and avoidance of personal mishaps.

    Between them, they sport 86 Test appearances and have been part of the first-team furniture for much of Erasmus’s time in charge so far.

    He and others – naturally including their respective franchise coaches – will be fervently hoping possible layoff periods in either instance are kept to a minimum: the Boks begin their run-up to the vital business of RWC 2019 in Japan from late September by entertaining Australia in the abbreviated Rugby Championship at Ellis Park on July 20 … just under three months away.

    Even before the latest north-south tussle, Erasmus will have had concerns over another Springbok, Warren Whiteley, in the last few days.

    After a rousing comeback from a different injury for the Lions against the Chiefs last week, the mobile and intelligent eighth-man could not turn out against the Crusaders in the 36-10 drubbing in Christchurch to end their Australasian tour because of a knee injury, the severity of which is also not yet confirmed.

    Mentioning Whiteley’s situation is relevant because in the unpalatable, worst-case event that Du Toit – such a revelation since specialising as a blindside flank -- requires a lengthy absence and even misses some 2019 Test activity, shifting robust Duane Vermeulen to No 7 with the popular Lions leader’s skills being deployed at eight would be a feasible option for the Boks.

    On Saturday, too, the Bulls’ strong and reliable inside centre Burger Odendaal also had to quit the derby before the finish, potentially leaving the losers (and now no longer conference leaders) with a midfield predicament for their next outing, against the Waratahs at Loftus next Saturday – an important bounce-back occasion for them.

    The Stormers always seemed to want it more in this game, perhaps additionally motivated by memories of the 40-3 first-round drubbing in Pretoria.

    Acting Bulls captain Handre Pollard admitted afterwards that the hosts had hit them hard in the crucial first 20 minutes or so, and the Highvelders were never really able to recapture a proper foothold after that despite faring staunchly in some areas the Stormers might have been expected to dominate more clearly – like the scrums, where Lizo Gqoboka and Trevor Nyakane put in admirably forceful shifts.

    In a welcome event for the Capetonian faithful, there was some backline sparkle from the Stormers, slippery Dillyn Leyds leading the charge but others like the Damians – Willemse and De Allende – also lifting their all-round games pleasingly.

    If anything the final score was deceptive, as mastermind Robbie Fleck will not have been pleased that they tried to launch an ambitious long-range raid after the siren in pursuit of an unlikely bonus point cherry on top: instead possession was turned over to the Bulls and Manie Libbok streaked away for a converted try that handed them, by contrast, the luxury of a losing bonus point they barely deserved.

    Just how important might that last-ditch “gift” from the Stormers prove to be in the race for knockout berths?

    It is open to intriguing speculation, because the SA conference only looks more and more like a quagmire of confusion, punctuated by alternating hot-and-cold performances from the teams in it.

    Even with the Jaguares due to tackle the Brumbies in the later, closing game of the current round in Buenos Aires, the Sharks cannot now be prevented from being new leaders of the group for at least a few days.

    While their more subtle brand of attributes remain close to non-existent, the men from Durban were good value for their tour-starting 23-15 triumph over the Waratahs, marked by an intensely physical approach and, when they were put under the cosh for some sustained periods, extremely gritty defence.

    The seemingly irresistible Crusaders next up seems highly likely to bring little to no Sharks reward in log-point terms, but if they can muster that level of focus and unified work-rate against the altogether more modest Chiefs a week later, the Sharks might even come back with a healthy 2/3 record from the trek and be right at the races for conference triumph in a few weeks’ time …

    Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

    Friday: Crusaders v Sharks, 09:35; Reds v Sunwolves, 11:45. Saturday: Hurricanes v Rebels, 07:15; Highlanders v Chiefs, 09:35; Brumbies v Blues, 11:45; Bulls v Waratahs, 15:05; Jaguares v Stormers, 21:40. Bye: Lions.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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