Israel Folau reminded everyone why he is one of the most talked about Vodacom Super Rugby players as he capitalised on a rare DHL Stormers defensive error to score the try that clinched the Waratahs a crucial 21-15 win in Sydney on Saturday.
It was the first Stormers defeat to the Waratahs in quite some time, dating back a couple of years, and for Bryan Habana it was his first loss to the Sydney franchise in eight matches spread across his career with the Stormers and the latter part of his career with the Vodacom Bulls.
Unfortunately though for Habana, playing his final season for the Stormers before heading to France, it was his mistake at the death that cost his team the game.
Habana, as he so often tends to, came off his defensive line with two and a half minutes to go as the Stormers committed themselves to defending what at that stage was a 15-11 lead for the Cape team and the Waratahs attacked in the strike-zone.
Berrick Barnes, who came on as a replacement, summed up the situation perfectly as he saw Habana running beyond his own players and he sent a pass that Folau latched onto behind Habana’s head and ran through the vacant space to score.
Barnes converted and then to compound the Stormers’ misery fullback Joe Pietersen was short with the restart and in the resulting scrum on the halfway line the Waratahs forced a penalty which Barnes kicked to make it 21-15.
But it was the Folau try that won it for the Waratahs, thus denying a Stormers team that seemed to lose a bit of its defensive structure when two key big loose-forwards, Rynhardt Elstadt and Duane Vermeulen, left the field in the last 10 minutes with what looked like serious injuries.
It was the second successive week where the Stormers were cruelly denied in a close game, but again, although their defence deserves to be commended for bravery and for most of the way also patience, they only have themselves to blame for losing.
It wasn’t poor decision-making this time, for Jean de Villiers opted to take every available opportunity to kick three pointers. Instead it was the high error rate that continually kept the Stormers in first gear and prevented them from taking control of a game that sometimes they looked capable of doing if they could just hold onto the ball beyond a few phases.
STATISTICS TELL A STORY
The surface was wet in Sydney but that can’t be used as an excuse for the Stormers’ poor ball retention skills, and there were also too many occasions where the field kicking was poor too, such as one in the first half where the Stormers won a lineout against the Waratahs throw and then Gary van Aswegen kicked it dead.
And then there was the poor Dewaldt Duvenage box kick that conceded a silly penalty which led to the field position from which the Waratahs launched for their first try.
That came against the run of play just beyond the end of a first quarter the Stormers had dominated.
A question had been asked of Stormers captain De Villiers during the week of whether he was concerned that the bigger Waratahs back three players might be able to force pressure through aerial attack, and that is exactly what happened, with Bernard Foley’s cross kick finding Folau, who reached up above Habana’s turned head and in front of Pietersen to put Cam Crawford through for the try on his inside.
The lack of big physical specimens like a Sireli Naqelevuki is at the heart of the Stormers’ lack of ambition when it comes to running the ball wide, for smaller players do just get turned over too easily, and it may be no coincidence that the Stormers’ last half decent try-scoring Super Rugby season was 2010, when Naqelevuki was still playing for them.
As it stands right now, they’ve scored 17 tries in 10 games, and while their defensive game remains impressive and nearly won them this match, the statistics do tell the story of why the Stormers are now languishing in 10th position with six games to go.
Put plain and simply, increments of three aren’t a good enough way to keep the scoreboard ticking over if the opposition have a game-breaker as superb as Folau in it and with two bits of brilliance they can move the scoreboard forward by 10 to 14.
That was all it required from the Waratahs on Saturday. The Stormers’ approach, which revolves so heavily around the elimination of mistakes in their game, can work – but then for it to work, you have to ensure you don’t make mistakes. That is what the Stormers haven’t been able to get right this year, with days being rare indeed where all the compartments of the team fire simultaneously.
It did look good for them in the first quarter. They had the first points on the board through a Pietersen penalty after 15 minutes and camped in the Waratahs half. They poached a few Waratahs lineouts and it would be fair to say they had the hosts under constant pressure in that phase, and there was also a big early scrum that turned over possession.
But what to do with the possession is what is key, and the Stormers just turn too much ball over, and there was a play in the 31st minute that summed up their season when a ball was spilled in front of the Waratahs’ posts and they kicked it through and nearly scored at the other end as Gio Aplon was caught in possession and penalised.
The second part of the first half, after the try was scored, saw a switch in momentum, with the Stormers committed almost only to defence in that period. But still the Stormers made it hard for themselves with errors that enabled the Waratahs to exert pressure, and it wasn’t a surprise when Brendan McKibbin was able to kick a penalty on the stroke of halftime that gave the Waratahs an 8-3 lead at the break.
The Stormers did have much the better of the first 30 minutes of the second half, and with Pietersen booting four penalties, and the Stormers turning around the penalty count that had been against them in the first half, it looked like they were heading for victory. But then came the double injury blow in the back row, and Habana’s brain explosion, and it left them to once again lament what might have been.
It’s been the story of their season and their chances of winning the Super Rugby title for the first time have consequentially become extremely remote. They do retain a mathematical chance of making the top six, but they can forget about the South African conference trophy. That looks like it will belong to the Bulls.
Waratahs – Tries: Cam Crawford, Israel Folau. Conversion: Berrick Barnes. Penalties: Brendan McKibbin (2), Barnes.
Stormers – Penalties: Joe Pietersen (5).