The DHL Stormers made a much needed statement in the set-phases en route to a 22-15 win over the Sharks at Newlands that opens up the South African Vodacom Super Rugby conference battle as the competition nears the halfway mark.
Although they have lost more games than they have won, they should take great heart from the fact that if they look at the Super Rugby log tables as they stand, the three wins that they have scored have been against the three conference leaders. As coach Allister Coetzee pointed out, that means they have beaten the best teams and shown what they are capable of.
“I said it after the game. We were up against it and under massive pressure and playing one of the top teams in the competition and I don’t think many teams would have managed to handle it the way we did today. This win is a huge confidence booster,” said Coetzee.
The significance of the penalty the Stormers conceded off the last move of the game might have been lost on some of the celebrating Newlands crowd. Pat Lambie’s kick cut the Sharks’ final deficit to seven points and thus enabled them to grab a crucial bonus point that could yet come back and haunt the Stormers at the business end of the season.
It was also the difference between the Stormers going into their second bye week five points off the pace rather than six. But it would be churlish to harp on too much about a bonus point when the Stormers achieved what they set out to do – with the win over their arch-rivals and current conference leaders coming as a timely confidence boost ahead of their overseas tour.
With the Stormers going into a bye week, the pressure is now on the Sharks to keep the heat on at the top of the conference by beating the Cheetahs in Durban next weekend.
As anticipated it was a titanic and often tense struggle between two good teams, with the quality of the rugby produced a great advert for the depth available to the South African game if you consider that both sides have been so injury ravaged.
It was always the Stormers who were in the ascendancy though, often by some distance, both on the scoreboard and on the field, where the first step to their final superiority – and the seven point loss did flatter the Sharks – was laid in their edging the early collisions and matching that with superiority in the much maligned set-piece.
Perhaps the loudest cheer of the game came when a concerted Stormers shove at an early scrum destroyed the Sharks unit, thus lifting the confidence levels of the home team, who have been under massive pressure for their inconsistency Let it be said too that the much maligned scrumming, played a pivotal part too, with the Sharks being smashed in an early set-piece to a loud cheer from the 41 000 mainly Stormers fans.
It was never as bad as in last year’s Currie Cup final, but the Sharks’ lineout was disrupted too, with this time the Stormers playing with the platform they didn’t have against the Crusaders here two weeks ago. Before the match the battle of the gainline was singled out as a possible match decider, with Michael Rhodes being the man expected to do big things for the Stormers.
The former Sharks player did that, and was a deserved recipient of the man of the match award, though his flank partner Siya Kolisi, so hard to completely halt when he had ball in hand and was pressing forward, could not have been far behind.
The Stormers were never behind in the game, and the Sharks were chasing it from the 12th minute, which was when Joe Pietersen kicked the second Stormers penalty for a 6-0 lead. The Stormers had enjoyed all the territorial ascendancy and had done all the pressing to that point, and you could sense that the Sharks were being systematically strangled.
Five minutes later the Stormers had a nine point buffer when referee Craig Joubert adjudged the Sharks to be off-sides in a move that saw Deon Fourie, the hard working hooker, cop a high tackle that eventually removed him from the match. Martin Bezuidenhout did well as the replacement.
While in recent games it has been customary to see the Stormers get penalised at the set-scrums, this time the boot was on the other foot, and the upshot was that the Sharks were never able to come close to getting the momentum that they craved and which their game hinges on.
It wasn’t as if the Sharks never had their moments, and scrumhalf Cobus Reinach in particular was a constant pest, and some neat little off-loads did occasionally trouble the Stormers defensive system. For the most part though it was the Stormers defence that was rock solid, and it should be noted that this was a game where they appeared to go back to the basics of the game that was successful for them in the past.
Having a no-nonsense, physical and solid flyhalf in the No 10 player rather than a more flamboyant one appears to work better for the Stormers and although he was never spectacular, Gary van Aswegen controlled the game well.
By contrast, as this was the fourth time this season in seven starts that the Sharks have failed to score a try, their coach John Plumtree must be getting a bit concerned about the attacking game.
“Unlocking the Stormers defence is always a challenge and a talking point and tonight we were a little too predictable against them,” said Plumtree afterwards.
The Stormers only scored one try, but it was a gem, with Juan de Jongh crossing for his third try in the space of two games to celebrate his landmark 50th game in fine style. The Springbok bumped off newcomer Sean Robinson after a deft bit of play from skipper Jean de Villiers as the ball was moved quickly from a ruck to the right after the initial thrust of the attack had been provided by the omnipresent and impressive Rhodes.
That was beyond the half hour mark in the game, with the Stormers moving into a 16-3 lead. Although Lambie cut it to 16-6 at the break, the Stormers were never less than seven ahead after that.
DHL Stormers – Try: Juan de Jongh. Conversion: Joe Pietersen. Penalty: Pietersen (5).
Sharks – Penalties: Pat Lambie (5).