The DHL Stormers brought some much needed warmth to their supporters on a chilly evening at Newlands as they ended their losing run with a hard earned but deserved 20-15 Vodacom Super Rugby win over the Reds on Saturday.
The Stormers had the imposing figure of Eben Etzebeth, a physically committed defensive system and some touches of magic from flyhalf Elton Jantjies to thank for the fact that they managed to break a three-match losing sequence and condemn the Reds to a tough uphill battle if they still have an interest in winning the Australian conference.
The first half looked like it was going to pass without a point being scored, but then came a moment of ingenuity from Bryan Habana, who after a period of sustained pressure from the Reds dropped back to field a kick and called for a mark next to touch in goal and with Reds players bearing down on him.
Seeing that the Reds weren’t concentrating, he caught them unawares by taking a short kick to himself, before bringing in skipper Jean de Villiers to launch the counter-attack.
It was Jantjies’d kick though that transferred play into the Reds’ 22, where the Stormers forced a penalty which enabled Joe Pietersen to land a psychological blow against the opposition by kicking a three pointer that gave them a 3-0 lead at the break.
It was Jantjies and Habana again, this time with the flyhalf putting across a perfectly targeted cross kick onto the Springbok wing, who provided the impetus for the only try of the match. Habana transferred inside to Pietersen after winning the ball in the air, and Pietersen drew the man to put De Villiers in with a clear run down the left wing.
Wing is in fact the position that De Villiers played for much of the early part of his career, and the veteran looked the part as he easily won the foot race against the converging Reds cover defenders to run in for a try that gave the Stormers an eight point buffer after 45 minutes.
The Stormers got this game right because for the first time in ages their execution was fairly accurate, though still not perfect. Whereas in recent weeks they have struggled to take the ball beyond a few phases, this time the handling was a lot better. As was the case last week, the Stormers played a lot more off the flyhalf than is the norm, but this time their defence fronted. And did they just, with some massive hits being put in.
If the Stormers were looking for a way to lose, as appeared to be the case at times on the overseas tour, it was through their indiscipline in the middle stages of the match that this time they went out about it. They were heavily penalised by referee Jaco Peyper in the second half, and Quade Cooper had his kicking boots firmly laced on in the second half.
In the first half he had missed two attempts at goal, but in the second he kicked five penalties that kept the Reds in touch. They even led for a bit after a long-range kick in the 65th minute, and for a while it looked like it might be another case of so near and yet so far for the Stormers.
But it didn’t take too long for the Stormers to force another penalty as Rob Simmonds was pinged for holding on, and Pietersen kicked it from the angle to put his team back in front. He kicked another from longer range with four minutes to go, and with the Stormers defence so impregnable all afternoon, it was a long shot for the Reds to win from there.
It was the Reds’ second defeat in South Africa and their trip has proved a major setback to their chances of winning back the trophy they won in 2011. The Stormers don’t really have any interest in the destination of the trophy and this victory won’t change that, but that won’t bother captain Jean de Villiers and coach Allister Coetzee.
Although they were playing at home, this was a game that the Stormers, with so many injury enforced changes, should not have been expected to win. The Reds after all had a lot to play for and they won here against a more experienced Stormers team two years ago.
“This was one of the toughest weeks of my coaching career and to win like that with the pressure we were under took great character, which is something this team clearly has and it is something no-one can coach,” said Coetzee at the post-match press conference.
Etzebeth led the way, as we thought he might, by cutting a rampaging presence. For ages the coaches have been telling us he is a No 4 and not a No 5, but in this game he looked very much like the latter. The Stormers will be saying goodbye to the prodigious, freaky talent that is Andries Bekker at the end of the season – they may already have – but they can rest assured that in Etzebeth they have a more than suitable replacement.
He stood up to the challenge of being asked to lead the lineout, and with hooker Tiaan Liebenberg also making a strong return to the Stormers jersey, that aspect of the game was a lot more polished than it has been for a while. And the scrum, which was strong all tour, stood firm again even though Etzebeth and Steven Kitshoff were the only members of the tight five who were backing up from last week.
There were times in the first half when it looked as if Etzebeth might be prepared to take on the entire Reds team on his own as he bashed away at their defences. To be honest, for most of the first half it didn’t look like there would be any way through for the Stormers, just as their own defence never looked like submitting to the Reds. The De Villiers try changed that and effectively won the Stormers the match.
“This was one of the most emotional wins of my career and I must thank the Newlands faithful for sticking by us. You cannot underestimate the role that the crowd played in us winning tonight,” said De Villiers.
“To beat a team like the Reds when you have 16 players out says something, and what it says is that we have the right coaches and they are choosing the right players.”
DHL Stormers - Try: Jean de Villiers. Penalties: Joe Pietersen (5).
Reds - Penalties: Quade Cooper (5).