The DHL Stormers survived some scary moments, but did what they had to, beating the Melbourne Rebels 26-21 at Newlands on Saturday to end up top of the Vodacom Super Rugby standings.
While they lifted the South African conference trophy for the second consecutive year and will have a home semifinal and possible home final if they make it so far, this was a game that the Stormers will want forgotten as they easily could have lost it if the Rebels were a more clinical side.
It wasn’t their best performance by a long shot, but they showed character to hang on and win, even though they would have hardly scared any of the big contenders for the title in the way they did.
With the win the Stormers become the first side to qualify for the playoffs without a four-try bonus point, and did so on the back of their 14 wins in 16 games, hardly ever flashy and will never come close to being the most enterprising team in the competition.
And this is where the concern is. With playoffs looming, the Stormers will have to produce a better performance than this one if they are to take their first title, against teams who are very adept at playing attacking rugby.
Even though their much-vaunted defence was once again their vanguard, they were outscored three tries to two by a side who are lucky not to finish last on the Super Rugby log and that should be a concern.
It took two excellent tries by Juan de Jongh to set matters straight, the second coming just at a crucial stage just after the Rebels had scored their second try after a second-half dip by the home side.
The Rebels made a spirited second-half reply after the Stormers looked to be cruising at 16-0 up.
But in the first half it was all Stormers, and they were on the board early after the Rebels' indiscipline cost them, allowing Peter Grant to slot two early penalties for a 6-0 lead.
It wasn’t long before the Rebels were falling off tackles, and De Jongh made the most of it, bursting through two tackles before stepping in and out and flummoxing the defence to score a wonderful solo try.
Another penalty shortly before the break gave the Stormers the 16-0 lead, but it was a more disciplined and composed Rebels side that starting making inroads, and kept the ball a lot better in the second half.
The visitors started using the pick and drive a lot more effectively and had the Stormers backpeddling, allowing big Rodney Blake to go over from close range to open their scoring.
Their attack started having a lot more width, probing for holes, and the Stormers started looked a bit vulnerable. It didn’t take long before the Rebels were close to the line and with a gap in front of him, halfback Nick Phipps went over to bring them within two.
It was looking precarious for the home side, but they managed to hit back almost immediately, as Bryan Habana took the kickoff and Peter Grant engineered a perfect switch with De Jongh to allow the centre to change direction and beat the defence with ease for his second try.
With the Stormers still looking vulnerable, the Rebels started applying pressure, enforcing mistakes and making flyhalf Peter Grant look rattled.
They brought themselves back into the game with a great try by Cooper Vuna, who outstripped the defence after a great break by replacement scrumhalf Nick Stirzaker.
A late Grant penalty restored the lead to five points and the Stormers held on for the win -- one they deserved but not one they will want to remember for a long time.
DHL Stormers – Tries: Juan de Jongh (2). Conversions: Peter Grant (2). Penalties: Peter Grant (3).
Rebels – Tries: Rodney Blake, Nick Phipps, Cooper Vuna. Conversions: Julian Huxley (3).