Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – A 19-year-old flyhalf looking an increasingly feasible option for the 2018 Springboks was one reason to stave off – just – a broad sense of despondency around the latest round of Super Rugby by South African onlookers.
Damian Willemse put a major all-round stamp on the Stormers’ hugely revitalised showing at a sun-baked Newlands, as the injury and flu-ravaged hosts knocked over the Blues (37-20) with surprising comfort on Saturday.
The performance of Willemse -- not too long ago a Paul Roos schoolboy -- coupled with passionate displays from many around him, proved an antidote on a weekend when the general national cause in the competition looked rather under the weather again.
With the Bulls having squandered a 14-point interval lead to lose to the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday, the Sharks looking sluggish and clumsy in a 24-17 tour-opening reverse to the Brumbies and the Lions getting the fright of their lives before staving off the humble Sunwolves 40-38 in Johannesburg, some crumbs of comfort were timely and welcome in Cape Town.
“Most of the boys only had the captain’s run (late in the week),” afterwards reminded victorious skipper Siya Kolisi, who put in a ton-of-bricks showing himself as the Aucklanders, hardly lacking in juggernaut specimens both in the pack and behind it, were often smashed backwards and sometimes run off their feet.
Considering that they had also travelled back all the way from New Zealand a few days earlier, and illness afflicting many in both playing staff and management, the Stormers were little short of heroic.
Willemse could hardly have been faulted as official choice for the player-of-the-match award, as he was both delightfully creative and assertive, really “bossing” things for a man so young and joining the widespread Stormers zeal for making bruising tackles even on sizeable specimens like Sonny Bill Williams and Akira Ioane.
The pivot also showed that he is no slouch at all off the kicking tee, with a pinpoint display that included converting all four home tries and adding three penalties for a personal tally of 17 points.
It is not normally an area where he has previously been entrusted with much responsibility, and if there happen to be any lingering concerns about his suitability to that task in red-letter Test matches, then how about the possibility of super-stepping Willemse challenging for the Bok No 10 shirt, with someone like booming-booted Handre Pollard as the inside centre right alongside him?
Pollard is also playing some satisfying rugby in the early stages of this year, and was instrumental in many fast-paced Bulls attacks in their dazzling first half against the Chiefs, before they ran out of steam as a unit for a second time in a row in Australasia.
It is difficult to imagine that you would not get “go-forward” from such a footballing combo, also sturdy enough in physical terms in busy channels on the park.
Have the Stormers turned a corner, after their winless trek to Australia and New Zealand?
Quite possibly: just for one thing, they should have a bigger, healthier pool of players to be able to choose from when the iffy Reds come to town next Saturday – straight off their own assignment against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires, so a bit time-zone “deurmekaar” – and another win ought to be well within the capability of Robbie Fleck’s charges.
As for the Lions … well, maybe we shouldn’t reach for any panic buttons yet.
Yes, it was surprisingly and bitterly disappointing that they couldn’t earn a bonus point from their narrow triumph over the Sunwolves, who have never before won away from home.
But their slightly experimental side nevertheless eked out the basic four log points, while clearly overcome by at least some complacency and missing the tactical and motivational direction characters like absent Warren Whiteley and Jaco Kriel provide.
Coach Swys de Bruin rested around a third of core individuals, and they should return fresh and fired-up for the trip to Buenos Aires and a clash at much closer to full strength – something they haven’t yet done against the Argentineans away – with the Jaguares.
The Sharks? They are the big disappointments of the SA conference so far, not yet catching alight and also with the drawback of one of the longer (four-match) Australasian legs this year.
Having failed to beat a Brumbies outfit that is not a patch on the Canberra side of the Gregan-Larkham era, they now go onward to play the Oz conference-leading Rebels, then the Blues and Hurricanes across the ditch.
It already looks like the proverbial “long tour” and an ankle injury to muscular inside centre Andre Esterhuizen against the Brumbies hardly helps.
Mind you, there will plenty of Sharks fans hoping to see a bit more sparkle than brawn in the next few weeks … their beloved side currently look too blunt and predictable to be title-chasers.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Crusaders v Bulls, 08:35; Rebels v Sharks, 10:45. Saturday: Sunwolves v Chiefs, 06:15; Hurricanes v Highlanders, 08:35; Stormers v Reds, 17:15; Jaguares v Lions, 23:40. Byes: Waratahs, Blues, Brumbies.
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