Cape Town – The real feel in Belfast was two degrees Celcius on Friday night, but it must have felt even colder for the Stormers as a nightmare outing ended in a 35-5 United Rugby Championship thumping at the hands of a Duane Vermeulen-inspired Ulster.
Almost everything that could possibly go wrong for John Dobson’s team at Kingspan Stadium became a reality, with fullback Clayton Blommetjies and flank Junior Pokomela withdrawn before kickoff, which saw Kade Wolhuter at No 15 and Marcel Theunissen at No 6.
Already without rested stars such as Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe, Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok, it took just four minutes for the visitors’ problems to escalate further, as lock Ben-Jason Dixon collided with hooker JJ Kotze as they both tried to tackle twinkle-toed Ulster fullback Mike Lowry.
Kotze was taken off on a stretcher, Dixon’s head was bandaged up as he was cut despite wearing a scrum-cap, and the ‘friendly fire’ saw Scarra Ntubeni come on for his first match since April 2022 after recovering from an Achilles injury.
But not long after No 8 Evan Roos drilled fellow Bok Vermeulen in a tackle, Ulster struck in the 14th minute via impressive scrumhalf Nathan Doak, who sniped over after a well-constructed attack where the forwards found easy holes in a disjointed Stormers defence.
Vermeulen then started getting his timing just right with his breakdown contests, pouncing on Theunissen on the ground to win the penalty, and then the home side brought up their second touchdown by wing Ben Moxham, who rounded off untouched as Ulster’s efficient ball-in-hand approach took full advantage of the dog-legs in the Cape side’s defence line.
Disaster struck the Stormers once more as the injured Roos was helped off the pitch in the 23rd minute.
That came after he stayed down in the 14th minute following a clean-out by Vermeulen and flank Nick Timoney, with Vermeulen having carried out a ‘croc roll’, which saw him wrap his arms around Roos’ waist and roll him towards the Stormers’ line.
The incident was exacerbated by Timoney arriving almost at the same time as Vermeulen and grabbing Roos’ right leg, which caused his knee to get stuck.
The Stormers star clutched his right knee immediately, and despite playing on until the 23rd minute, he was unable to continue.
That resulted in a total reconfiguration of the pack as new signing Ruben van Heerden came on for his Stormers debut at lock, Dixon moved to flank and Willie Engelbrecht shifted to No 8.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis went off for an HIA. Juan de Jongh came on at inside centre, Wolhuter moved to flyhalf and Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu dropped back to No 15.
The Stormers didn’t give up, and actually put together a few decisive passages of play on attack and defence, but a loose pass or ruck turnover – especially from their former stalwart Vermeulen – stopped them in their tracks.
They had done well to keep the score down to 14-0 and was about to reach halftime when a tap penalty saw Ulster flank Nick Timoney force his way over, and it was virtually game over at 21-0.
The visitors’ rotten luck continued early in the second half when Dixon received a yellow card for a high tackle on Lowry, and the Ulster bonus point was wrapped up by tighthead prop and Man-of-the-Match Jeff Toomaga-Allen – although Vermeulen probably deserved that award more – charging over following a line-break by centre James Hume.
Lively fullback Lowry got a deserved five-pointer as he finished off a flowing move that also included a classy Vermeulen offload, which made it 35-0 after 57 minutes.
Replacement forward Andre-Hugo Venter grabbed a late try to put the Stormers on the board, but the best moment of the night for captain Marvin Orie’s team would have been when referee Mike Adamson blew the final whistle, as it meant that they could get back to their hotel…
Ulster 35 – Tries: Nathan Doak, Ben Moxham, Nick Timoney, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Mike Lowry. Conversions: Doak (4), John Cooney (1).
Stormers 5 – Try: Andre-Hugo Venter.