The DHL Stormers nearly stole it late in the game but few who braved a chilly Cape early autumn evening would have argued against the contention that the Crusaders were full value for their 19-14 Vodacom Super Rugby win at Newlands on Saturday night.
It was only excellent Stormers defence that kept the Crusaders at bay during a dominant second half from the visitors. Although the home team did wriggle out of the noose long enough in the last 10 minutes to mount a spirited attack on the Crusaders’ line at the death, they spent most of the game after halftime defending.
And the Crusaders, knowing they were up against an ineffectual lineout that couldn’t hold onto its own ball, were able to kick with the knowledge that if the ball went out they would have a good chance of getting the ball back. So they played the corners after halftime, and they were highly effective at it.
The Crusaders played well, but like every time they have played against the Crusaders since their 42-14 thrashing of the New Zealand outfit in 2010, the Stormers also conspired against themselves.
As good as the Stormers were in their two recent home games against the Chiefs and the Brumbies, so they were rank bad on Saturday night. It was like the nightmare of the opening two away losses coming back to haunt them – they were unable to control their own lineout ball, and from there the mistakes spread.
What made the performance particularly lamentable from a Stormers’ viewpoint was the fact that although the Stormers also had players out injured, the Crusaders were reduced virtually to a second string team by late injury withdrawals. As it was, they arrived in South Africa without key players Kieran Read and Dan Carter, and to compound that they lost Israel Dagg in the build-up to the game. His absence necessitated a reshuffle, with Tom Marshall moving from wing to fullback in place of Dagg, and Johnny McNicholl switching from left wing to right to accommodate Zac Guildford.
McNicholl was stretchered from the field in the first half, thus necessitating another change, and there was also a significant one in the front row, with Owen Franks leaving the field early too. Maybe those changes gave the Crusaders extra motivation, but if the Stormers want to be a champion team they need to win home games against under-strength line-ups like the Crusaders were on Saturday.
With the change in loosehead prop and hooker being one of the big talking points in the build-up week, the match couldn’t have had a less confidence inspiring start for the Stormers. The first scrum was only set in the 25th minute, and by then Crusaders had lost Franks, which necessitated a switch of side for the destructive force that is loosehead Wyatt Crockett.
So if the scrums weren’t a disaster, the lineouts were, with Deon Fourie failing to find his jumpers with his first two throw-ins. It never got much better than that after that initial period, and by halftime the tally against the throw for the Stormers was as high as six. With a dearth of comfortable lineout ball, it’s hard for any team to create momentum and build pressure.
That said, the Stormers, who did win one back against the throw through good work from De Kock Steenkamp in the early minutes, did well to override the shortfall in the opening quarter. Steenkamp has been one of the unsung heroes for the Stormers so far this season, and he was so again as he put in some big early hits that saw the Crusaders spill the ball.
The first time he did it the Stormers won a penalty and Joe Pietersen made no mistake as the flags were raised to put the Stormers 3-0 up. Another big tackle from Steenkamp won a later penalty that the Stormers used to set up the lineout, and from that attacking platform the Stormers drove over the line for Siya Kolisi to dot down.
So after 16 minutes it was 8-0, and it became 11-0 when Pietersen kicked another penalty in the 23rd. That though was the last Stormers success of the half, with the game swinging comprehensively after that as the Crusaders came back to pip the first half 13-11.
The Stormers, mindful perhaps of the momentum the Crusaders picked up against the Kings the week before when the Eastern Cape team gave them space, were extremely quick off the defensive line for most of the match. It did work for them and later in the match, when the Crusaders were enjoying most of the possession, the discipline and organisation on defence of the Stormers was mind-boggling. At one stage they held off a Crusaders attack that went through 26 phases.
But there were also times in the first half where the Crusaders appeared to create holes by getting the ball in behind the advancing defender. Of course it also doesn’t help when you’re defending turn-over ball, which was often the case in the first half.
A great Sam Whitelock off-load was the memorable feature of the try that Matt Todd scored between the posts, but it was a slipped tackle near halfway that started the Crusaders’ surge for the line, and the Stormers were always scrambling after that.
DHL Stormers – Try: Siya Kolisi. Penalties: Joe Pietersen (3).
Crusaders – Try: Matt Todd. Conversion: Tyler Bleyendaal. Penalties: Bleyendaal (4)