The DHL Stormers ended the Vodacom Super Rugby season on a rousing note as they condemned the Vodacom Bulls to the tougher route to the final with an emphatic 30-13 win in their big derby match at Newlands on Saturday night.
It was a bittersweet win for the Stormers, who led 23-13 at halftime. It was sweet because they don’t often beat their staunch rivals as easily as they did in this game, with the Stormers never being headed in a game that they dominated for almost the entire 80 minutes.
The bitter part was that the game showed what the team could have achieved if they played with just a bit more consistency through the season.
The Stormers finished the season with a flourish, winning their last five games, and they also completed the trifecta, in the sense that they convincingly beat all three conference winners, the Brumbies and the Chiefs being the others, in matches at Newlands this season.
This game showed where they went wrong earlier in the year, as indeed they had in the previous four wins – forget about the debate about the game-plan, for it becomes less relevant when their forwards are fronting and commanding comfortable first-phase ball.
That is what they did against the Reds, the Cheetahs, the Kings twice and now the Bulls, and it wasn’t a coincidence they won all those games.
It was the first Bulls defeat on South African soil this year and their first loss since they were overseas in late March.
They just weren’t up to it in this match, and whereas they got out of jail late in the game against the Sharks at Loftus a week earlier, this time there was no escape as they were suffocated by a Stormers team that played with great passion and commitment as they gave the departing stars like Bryan Habana and Andries Bekker the perfect send-off.
But the big benefactors from this game were the Chiefs. For the second successive year the Chiefs sat in Hamilton and watched a game at Newlands on television desperate for one team to win.
In 2012 they were supporting the Sharks in the semifinal, as a Sharks win would mean they had to travel to Hamilton for the final.
They got that one right and the Sharks were the toast of Hamilton then. The other big South African coastal team will be the toast of that New Zealand city now, as the Stormers’ comprehensive victory means that the Chiefs finish top of the overall log. That means that if they make the final, they will host it.
But the Chiefs aren’t playing that well at the moment either, so don’t bet too much against the Bulls still being able to play the final in South Africa.
CONSIDERABLE IMPROVEMENT NEEDED
That is what will happen if the Crusaders beat the Chiefs in a semifinal, if that happens. It goes without saying though that the Bulls, who are now being impacted by the same sort of injuries that plagued the Sharks and Stormers and tripped them up earlier in the year, need to effect a considerable improvement if they want to challenge for the title.
On the evidence of the past two home games they have played, in which they have outplayed the two teams ahead of them, the Bulls and the Cheetahs, in the space of a fortnight, the Stormers finish the season as the form South African team.
So they should be kicking themselves that the adherence to the basics that helped them win on Saturday started happening so late in the season.
Yes, they were unlucky often, yes they had a tough draw, yes they suffered a ridiculous list of injuries, but ultimately the Stormers would probably have been in the play-offs had they started the season getting the basics right.
Instead they started out as if they had spent the off-season working only on the frills and the show moves, with the Western Province triumph in last year’s Currie Cup final possibly doing more bad than good for this year’s challenge.
They end in a good place though, and certainly had happier looks on their faces on Saturday night than they did when they bowed out of the 2011 and 2012 seasons with defeats in home semifinals.
It was a great win and a fitting way for Bryan Habana to sign off his Super Rugby and Stormers career before heading off to start a new life at Toulon.
And how fitting it was that he was the scorer of the try that put daylight between the Stormers and his old team after 17 minutes as Jean de Villiers cleverly dragged the Bulls' defenders across the field with him before passing inside for the speedster to go over and score.
The Stormers were already 7-3 up on the scoreboard after big Eben Etzebeth had powered over near the corner flag after another of those lineout set-ups off a penalty, this one coming right as the Stormers made their early dominance of the game count in the 10th minute.
The Stormers were never headed in the match, and never looked like being headed on a night where they were emphatically better than their staunch rivals in almost every aspect of play.
The Bulls were not even able to make an impression during the 10 minutes around the halfway mark when Stormers skipper De Villiers was off the field after being yellow-carded for a shoulder charge.
The resultant penalty enabled Morne Steyn to reduce what was a 13-point deficit to a 10-point backlog at the break, and Cape fans might have feared that there would be a momentum shift early in the second half, with De Villiers condemned to missing the first 10 minutes.
But the three points from that Steyn penalty proved to be the only points the Bulls scored while the Stormers were down to 14 men.
Far from there being a momentum shift, the Stormers actually shifted a gear themselves, and they played almost all the time that De Villiers was off the field deep in the Bulls’ half.
It was almost inevitable, considering the dominance that the Stormers were by now enjoying, that the Stormers would add to their lead once the captain came back on.
And so it proved, with De Villiers himself burrowing over after a sustained and prolonged build-up in which the Stormers showed all the composure and patience that was missing from their play earlier in the season.
The man of the match was again Deon Fourie, who cancelled out the Bulls’ Deon Stegmann at the battle of the breakdown which seemed designed to establish that there could only be place for one Deon on the field.
But young flyhalf Gary van Aswegen also deserves great credit for the way he controlled the game.
His place-kicking was faultless, his tactical kicking was good, his passing was solid, and his decision-making was exemplary. With Demetri Catrakilis apparently headed back to the Western Cape soon, Western Province can feel they have depth available at flyhalf for the Currie Cup season. They have depth elsewhere too, with big Rynhardt Elstadt showing what was missed when his physical presence wasn’t there.
Stormers – Tries: Eben Etzebeth, Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers. Conversions: Gary van Aswegen (3). Penalties: Van Aswegen (3).
Bulls – Try: Zane Kirchner. Conversion: Morne Steyn.. Penalty: Steyn.