The Waratahs condemned the DHL Stormers to spend the week they will have off for their bye contemplating what it feels like to be bottom of the Vodacom Super Rugby log as they won a largely forgettable game 22-11 at Newlands in Cape Town.
There have been positive developments off the field for the Stormers this week with the appointment of Gert Smal as director of rugby. But the long term view is different to the here and now, and right now the Stormers are in a hole, with the Waratahs game being their fifth successive defeat.
It is not so much the fact that they drop behind the Toyota Cheetahs to the foot of the table that made this game such a sobering one for Cape fans. Rather it was the reality that with this defeat disappeared the last small thread of pretence that things might not really be going that badly.
By suffering their first home defeat, the Stormers, captained on the day by Duane Vermeulen in the absence of injured/rested regular skipper Jean de Villiers, effectively went into the negative balance for the first time.
Up to this game the Stormers could argue that although they were languishing near the bottom of the log, most of their games have been played away from home.
Their tour of Australasia was a particularly tough one, and the solitary home game played before that, against the Hurricanes, had produced a positive result if not a particularly competent performance.
But that argument went west when the Waratahs systematically took control of a game that the Stormers were well in during the first half, and probably right up to the point that an injury to Kobus van Wyk brought about a confusing backline reconfiguration.
Damian de Allende had always looked the man most likely to threaten the Waratahs gainline from inside centre, but when he was moved to the wing to replace Van Wyk, the Stormers disappeared from the game.
The Stormers had started positively enough, and hopes of a rousing start to the Smal tenure as director of rugby – he has been only a spectator this week, so it would anyway have been an impression rather than a reality – flickered when Peter Grant kicked a penalty to take his team into a 3-0 lead after 12 minutes.
The Stormers had to resist some strong Waratahs attacking in the early stages, but had started to look confident before the Grant kick.
However, the Waratahs always seemed to enjoy the better set-phase territory, and a Stormers defensive scrum under their own posts saw the ball roll loose and Waratahs scrumhalf Nick Phipps pounce on it to score an opportunistic try.
CREAKY SCRUM UNIT
It was to be the Waratahs’ only try of the game, and the only Stormers try of the match came not long afterwards as the hosts started to show promising signs of an improvement to their attacking game.
Big inside centre De Allende seemed to be at the heart of it, so it came as a surprise when he was switched to the wing later in the game to accommodate Michael van der Spuy in the midfield when Van Wyk went off injured in the second half.
It was the other centre, Juan de Jongh, though who made the break off a short Grant pass that sent Van Wyk in for the Stormers try, an occasion to celebrate as the Waratahs’ defensive system is not an easy one to break down and it was beautifully created.
After that there were a few more opportunities, De Allende usually featuring, that the Stormers were unable to round off.
They should have extended their lead, but Grant missed the conversion of the try and also a penalty in a kickable position.
Against the Waratahs you have to kick everything to have a chance of winning, and the Waratahs were on target with all their kicks at goal, which were spread between Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale (the long-range kicks).
It was Beale who kicked the penalty that took the Waratahs to a 10-8 lead, and after that the Stormers were never in front again.
As anticipated, the Waratahs did kick a lot more than they usually do, and certainly enjoyed more set-piece territory than the Stormers did.
The Stormers defence was solid, although most of the hits were more passive than the dominating gang tackles that characterised previous wins against these opponents. But of course, when a team is kicking more, you do have to have numbers back to cover.
The hosts were much better in the lineouts, with the hard work put in during the week clearly paying off, but where the Stormers did struggle significantly was in the set scrums, where they were frequently under pressure, and that pressure was converted into substance when referee Glen Jackson penalised the Stormers' creaky scrum unit.
This was the first Stormers defeat at home since they lost to the Crusaders last Easter and it was another sobering reality of a season that seems to be quickly heading west.
The tired Stormers players have some thinking and regrouping to do before they return on Easter Saturday to play the Lions.
WARATAHS – Try: Nick Phipps; Conversion: Brendan Foley; Penalties: Brendan Foley 3 and Kurtley Beale 2.
STORMERS – Try: Kobus van Wyk; Penalties: Peter Grant 2.