Duane Vermeulen got through a semi-contact session on Tuesday afternoon apparently without any complaints, but it is still touch and go whether he will be named in the Stormers team when it is announced later on Wednesday.
It will all depend on how Vermeulen feels when he reports to training early on Wednesday. The Stormers are desperate to play him against the Sharks in Saturday’s semifinal, but with a possible final to look forward to a week later, coach Allister Coetzee has said he won’t risk his influential loose-forward if there is any doubt about his readiness.
Perhaps the smart money should be on Vermeulen being named, or bracketed, in the side when it is announced at lunch-time. But that won’t necessarily mean he will play as if he was named and didn’t make an appearance when the teams run out onto Newlands at 5pm on Saturday it wouldn’t be the first time it has happened this season.
What the team announcement is likely to unveil for certain are a couple of changes to the side that played against the Rebels two weeks ago — and with no other injuries to report, all of them are likely to be geared at strengthening the unit.
The big step forward for the Stormers will be the return of physical young Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth, a man who has been out for a few weeks now with an ankle injury but who has been preparing during that time for this game. He will have a massive role to play against a physical Sharks pack, a battle that Coetzee suspects may decide the semifinal.
“All South African derbies are physical and nothing much has changed over the years when it comes to local teams playing one another — the team that gets the physical ascendancy usually wins,” said Coetzee this week.
What he says is true, and the last two times the Sharks have come to Newlands for Super Rugby it has been in the physicality stakes that they came second. Last year the Stormers smashed them, scoring four tries to nil, in a game that prompted Sharks coach John Plumtree afterwards to say that the balance of power when it came to physicality in South African rugby had shifted to the Cape.
‘EXTRA EFFORT ON OUR SCRUM’
It was the second time that month, April, that the Sharks had come off second best physically in a game against the Stormers. The Stormers didn’t win by as much, but they also weren’t really troubled by the Sharks in the first round game at the beginning of the month at Kings Park. Earlier this season the Sharks and Stormers played out a tight game at Newlands, with the Stormers only winning it at the death with a Peter Grant penalty.
However, while the match was close, it was when the Stormers took control physically in the second half after a poor opening that they effectively won the contest. The mitigating factor though for the Sharks was that they weren’t at full strength that day. When they had their star forwards back for the more recent clash in Durban, the boot was on the other foot, with the Sharks winning more comfortably than the five point margin might indicate.
The Sharks will be at full strength at forward, with Steven Sykes likely to be available again to start after playing off the bench last week, but the Stormers have been working hard this week at getting their first phase play right. The Sharks attacked them in those areas in Durban, and Coetzee hasn’t forgotten it.
“That was what we were irritated about after the Durban game, they forced us into making mistakes and all the points they scored could be attributed to mistakes we made. They do hit you hard at first phase, like they did the Reds this past weekend. We have been putting in an extra effort on our scrum this week, and we have also been working hard at our lineouts.”
If Vermeulen is there he will make a quantum difference to the lineout performance, and it is also true that Andries Bekker, the leader of the lineout, is now back to better form after struggling with injury before the break for the international window.
When it comes to the scrum, Coetzee looks set to opt for experience for this game, with Brok Harris likely to return for the young Frans Malherbe.
The best Stormers’ scrumming performances this year have happened when Malherbe has come on later in the game, the first round match against the Sharks being a case in point.
Plus Harris will have a massive point to prove as he was one of the players criticised when the Stormers were outplayed and out-scrummed by the Crusaders in the corresponding match last year. Coetzee is one who believes that improvement comes through lessons being learned, and he will be hoping so in this case.
While the Sharks front-row of Beast Mtawarira, Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis has on occasion dominated the Stormers front-row in the past few years, there have also been times when that trend has been reversed. The Stormers will be hoping that Saturday is one of those days that the trend is bucked.