Pieter-Steph du Toit

Pieter-Steph du Toit (Gallo Images)

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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