at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
Duane Vermeulen is looking forward to facing the Lions tomorrow in much the same way that Obelix relishes the prospect of separating Roman soldiers from their sandals in the famous French comic, Asterix.
The Stormers commence their Super Rugby campaign at Ellis Park and, akin to the comic-book mismatch, it won’t be an even fight.
The Lions, back from a one-year exile, are brave and enthusiastic. But there isn’t a single player in the Stormers’ starting line-up who coach Allister Coetzee would be willing to trade for a Lions counterpart.
Conversely, Lions coach Johan Ackermann would need a three-ton flatbed truck to load all the Stormers players he’d like to keep in Joburg.
Arguably, chief among those is Vermeulen, the Bok bruiser who some regard as an even better loose forward than All Blacks No 8 Kieran Read.
Despite his overpowering on-field persona, Vermeulen is a retiring fellow when facing the business-end of a dictaphone, and he tried to be modest about the “challenge” of taking on the Lions back-row triumvirate of Derick Minnie, Jaco Kriel and Warren Whiteley.
“It’s always tough because all the South African loose forwards are right up there,” the 116-kilogram Stormers brute said. “But it’s about who has the greatest desire to get across the gain-line – if you have that, then you’re going to get front-foot ball. Both teams strive for it, but not everyone gets it.”
No-one gets it quite like Vermeulen, who is rarely stopped behind the gain-line and who routinely demolishes ball-carriers with momentum-halting, dominant hits that underpin the Stormers’ defensive philosophy.
The only challenge facing Vermeulen tomorrow will come from one of his ferocious teammates – such as Schalk Burger, Siya Kolisi and Rynhardt Elstadt – who will be determined to beat him in the race to crash-tackle a few “Romans” out of their boots.
“You know what you get out of Rynhardt,” Vermeulen said of the scrumming lock.
“His physical presence on the field is a big thing for us, as well as the way that he operates in the loose, it’s like having an extra loose forward.”
Interestingly, the Stormers pack is devoid of a specialist fetcher. Coetzee has been outspoken about his desire to see tries scored from turnovers this year, and the absence of a ball-hawk seems to be a contradiction.
“Turnovers don’t just come from steals,” explained the Stormers coach.
“We back our defence system, in terms of making turnover tackles. I don’t think it’s about an out-and-out fetcher – we’ve got players who will have a go when it’s on.”
Dominant hits from Vermeulen will signal the opportunity for the Stormers’ first-arrivals to get their hands on the ball, and it’s from such turnovers that Coetzee wants to convert defence into tries.
The Lions are 80 minutes into the season and, from a continuity perspective, they may catch the Stormers a bit cold. The Highveld factor will also takes its toll on the visitors in the fourth quarter.
Stormers fans shouldn’t expect their team to set the Ellis Park scoreboard on fire, but they should bank on them coming home with their 14th consecutive victory against the Lions, and a winning start to the season.
Lions: 15 Chrysander Botha, 14 Deon van Rensburg, 13 Stefan Watermeyer, 12 Alwyn Hollenbach, 11 Ruan Combrinck, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Faf de Klerk, 8 Warren Whiteley (captain), 7 Derick Minnie, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Franco Mostert, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Schalk van der Merwe
Replacements: 16 Willie Wepener, 17 Jacques van Rooyen, 18 Ruan Dreyer, 19 MB Lusaseni, 20 Warwick Tecklenburg, 21 Ross Cronje, 22 JW Jonker, 23 Coenie van Wyk - Cape Argus