Chris Noakes kicked six penalty goals but it would have been the DHL Stormers who were kicking themselves after the Blues held on to win 18-17 in a tight, tense game on a damp field at North Harbour Stadium in Albany on Friday.
The Stormers built up strongly off the last move of the game as they desperately sought the score that would have won it for them in similar fashion to their great come-from-behind effort across the bridge at Eden Park in Auckland two years ago. Back then the Stormers fought back from 19-3 down to win with a late conversion kick from Dewaldt Duvenage.
This time it was Elton Jantjies who shaped up to be the hero after the ball had been set up on several occasions as the Stormers took the ball through phase after phase after the hooter had sounded. But when it came back to him in a good position to snap over a drop-goal, the Blues defence was storming down on him and in face of the pressure he fluffed the attempt.
Inevitably there will be disappointed fans who will have a go at Jantjies for that miss, but in truth it should never have been up to him. The Stormers dominated the first half in all the relevant statistics except the one that counted the most, the scoreboard. Every time the Blues went into Stormers territory they left with points, with Noakes kicking three penalties to the Stormers one to lead 9-3 at the break.
What that scoreline doesn’t tell you though is about the number of points that the Stormers left on the table in a crazy 15 minute period in the middle of the half. The first miss was a try-scoring opportunity that Joe Pietersen created with a blistering break in the 19th minute. He had Gio Aplon on his outside and the wing surged forward to a point where, with Pietersen unmarked on his inside and the tryline only a couple of metres away, it would have been a certain try.
Instead Aplon held onto it and he was caught by a good tackle from Rene Ranger. The chance to score was still on though, and Andries Bekker could have made up for the Aplon mistake had he passed just short of the line. Instead he went himself and was adjudged, after consultation with the TMO, to have fallen just millimetres short of the line.
At that stage it looked like the Stormers were starting to take control, but they trailed 6-0 to two early Noakes penalties, the second of them just three minutes before the try-scoring chance was wasted. Then five minutes later, trailing 6-3, the Stormers produced one of those brain explosions that occasionally trips up even the finest teams.
Clearly thinking they had the ascendancy on the field, which they did have, Jean de Villiers opted to set up a lineout drive rather than kick for goal and level the scores at 6-all. The Stormers were unlucky as one small slip stopped them from driving over for the try, which would have made any post-mortem comment about the decision irrelevant.
But the kick was from a position almost in front and would have been a certain three points, whereas the conversion rate of lineout drives, even if the Stormers are good at it, can’t be nearly as high a percentage of probability.
The Stormers then did get a chance to kick one three minutes later from an easily kickable position for Pietersen, but he missed it. Perhaps that preyed on the Stormers’ minds, for they then opted to kick for a lineout with their next penalty, which was also just within range of Pietersen’s boot, and this time Pietersen missed touch.
He had also missed touch with a penalty early in the game, so it was not a good night for the fullback. Indeed, it was not a good night generally for the Stormers’ kicking game, which had been so good against the Hurricanes but was pretty woeful for the first part of the match in Albany.
An early second-half penalty from Noakes put the Blues 12-3 ahead in a game where for most of it they were second best, and that was a turning point as then the Stormers appeared to lose composure. Suddenly they started to knock on balls as frustration crept into their game, and they also lost their earlier authority in their first phase play.
The Blues, by contrast, were emboldened by their ability to get Noakes to tick the scoreboard over every time they got within range, and the Stormers suddenly started to give away a succession of penalties in addition to making mistakes. They had done neither in the first half.
Sure enough, there was another penalty for Noakes to kick, and at 15-3 down, it looked like the Stormers were out of a game that they should really have been leading. That though was when the Stormers, perhaps releasing some of their own tension in thinking that the game might be gone, started to play, and a great angled run from Juan de Jongh put De Villiers in for the first try of the match.
The conversion made it 15-10 with 14 minutes to go, but the Stormers kept conceding penalties every time they were inside their own territory. A stupid scrum penalty gave Noakes the chance to make it an eight point lead from almost in front of the posts and the Stormers were let off when he pushed it wide, but then came what looked a refereeing error when the Stormers were blown at a breakdown.
The breakdown penalty was dubious in itself, but the play shouldn’t even have been in that area of the field as the assistant referee had adjudged that the ball had come off a Stormers player off a kick, when really it was Rene Ranger that it came off. It was quite clear on television, and was an unforgiveable mistake at a key moment of the game. It was from that lineout that the Blues played themselves into the territory where the penalty was awarded.
This time Noakes kicked it and with the Blues leading by eight points with fewer minutes remaining, that should have been it. But the Stormers weren’t finished, and De Villiers, now playing as well as at any time in his career, took an outside gap and ran through poor Blues defence to score a great try. But by the time Pietersen had kicked the conversion there were only three minutes left.
The Stormers shouldn’t have been chasing the game though, and they only have themselves to blame. They were unfortunate in many senses, but this was also one they gave away.
Blues - Penalties: Chris Noakes (6).
Stormers - Tries: Jean de Villiers (2). Conversions: Joe Pietersen (2). Penalty: Pietersen.