Injuries were the Stormers’ bridge too far

rugby16 June 2019 08:20| © Cycle Lab
By:JJ Harmse
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Lukhanyo Am © Getty Images
The DHL Stormers’ management team was gutted at the way the Cell C Sharks extinguished the hopes of Vodacom Super Rugby playoff qualification with Lukhanyo Am’s last move try, but amidst their dejection, there was also realism.

Like the Comrades Marathon runner that only just makes one of the cut-offs along the tortuous route between Durban and Pietermaritzburg but is already limping badly and knows he or she has very little left and has just been condemned to more hours on the road with no prospect of a finish, another week in the competition would have been just that.

The injury toll had just got too much, and on reflection once they had lost key forwards Jaco Coetzee and Cobus Wiese early in the game against the Sharks, they did well to stay in the contest.

The Sharks also suffered injuries before the game and during it. Curwin Bosch wasn’t available, neither were Ruan Botha and Jean-Luc du Preez, while Tendai Mtawarira was ruled out before the game and watched from the stands.

The prospect of giving him one last game for the franchise he has served so well next week might well have been what motivated the Sharks to dig deep during the closing minutes of a game that they were losing. Makazole Mapimpi and Aphelele Fassi also went off during play.

But in the Sharks’ case there was less disruption in the sense that most of the combinations were ones that have played together quite often this season. Robert du Preez junior may not be everyone’s favourite flyhalf, but he played all the games up to the overseas tour, and Botha only returned to the mix on tour too. Beast has been out for a while and his replacements have done well and are settled.

The Stormers did win the scrum battle and it may not be coincidence that the front row was the only first choice combination that started the decisive game for them. The back three had only one regular starter from earlier in the year in Dillyn Leyds, and he was playing at fullback, not the wing position he played most of the season. Damian Willemse is missed as much by the Stormers when he isn’t present as Bosch is by the Sharks.

The midfield was missing Ruhan Nel, the halfback pairing was missing Herschel Jantjies (and it was a crucial absence, for while Jano Vermaak is experienced, he has been out for a while and does everything a split second slower than Jantjies does at this point and is certainly not the same attacking threat).

By starting with Coetzee, the Stormers arguably had their best No 8 on the field, but when he went off you realised that a chasm has been created in the back-up through the injuries to Juarno Augustus and Sikhumbuzo Notshe, who both started the year ranked higher than Coetzee. Both regular starting flanks were missing, and they were big names - Siya Kolisi and Pieter-Steph du Toit. There’s also Kobus van Dyk.

Perhaps the biggest hole was in the second row, where the Stormers started the year with perhaps greater depth than any team in the competition. The names missing there were Eben Etzebeth, JD Schickerling, Salmaan Moerat and of course Pieter-Steph du Toit plays there too. So when young David Meihuizen came onto the field for Wiese, the Stormers were down to their seventh lock - behind Wiese and Van Zyl too.

As coach Robbie Fleck noted afterwards, the youngster played well, as did wing Edwill van der Merwe and loose-forward replacement Chris Massyn.

"I thought David was very impressive and so were the other newcomers. That is why I am so gutted, every time we did ask a youngster to step up he did. We lost today but I can’t fault the effort put in and the youngsters have shown that there is a bright future for this union," said Fleck.

But when it came to the immediate future and the prospect of winning a quarterfinal on the road next week had his team held on during those last desperate seconds against the Sharks, Fleck had to concede that might have been too much of a challenge.

For added to the injuries listed above are now Wiese, who has a knee injury serious enough to rule him out of the forthcoming Currie Cup, and Leyds, who finished the game with a broken hand. Johan du Toit, the best Stormers forward on the day, played with broken ribs. None of those players would have been available had the Stormers progressed, and goodness knows where they would have had to dig to get replacements.

"In the end, the injuries were just too much for us. We were well placed after the draw against the Crusaders and then the win over the Highlanders but since then the injuries have just placed massive challenges," said Fleck.

"It’s part of rugby and there’s nothing you can do about it. It is what it is. The unbroken sequence of matches this year, with no June break, did undoubtedly play a role. To get around that you need to rotate selections, which is what the New Zealand sides do, but we were never really in a position to do that."

What Fleck would have been referring to there were the early season injuries, the loss to the Bulls in the opening game that saw them start with their backs to the wall, and the tough draw that saw them play six of their opening eight matches away from Newlands.

The Sharks have a long injury list to deal with but they have less disruption, so from a South African viewpoint they may stand a better chance of pulling off a shock result in Canberra next week than a Stormers squad that would have had to dig deeper into the Varsity Cup and Supersport Challenge resource base for reinforcements.

Given how they laboured though against a Stormers team so disrupted, and also their clear inadequacies when it comes to a game-plan that revolves almost completely around bullying the opposition, Durban fans shouldn’t be holding their breath. They’ve made this cut-off but have just condemned themselves to more time on the road with little prospect of a finisher’s medal.