The DHL Stormers put their new mindset on display at Newlands on Saturday afternoon as they halted the momentum of the Highlanders with a deserved 29-28 Vodacom Super Rugby win.
In terms of entertainment being laid on for the Newlands faithful, this was the sort of fare that hasn’t been seen here for ages, with Jean de Villiers’ men going through the rare barrier, for them, of scoring four tries and thus netting a full house of log points. Not since March last year, when the Brumbies were in town, have the Stormers scored a four try bonus point, and before that you had to go back about 18 months as they never scored any in 2012.
So that is reason to celebrate, and so is the newfound confidence in the Stormers’ attacking game. Perhaps it’s because some of the pressure is off, maybe it is because they have a mental coach on board in the form of psychologist Henning Gericke, or maybe there is just a new voice and a clearer message coming through in the change-room since Gert Smal came to town to take up the position of director of rugby.
But there can be no denying that the Stormers seem less afraid to make mistakes than they were before, and as a consequence of that, they’re not making them. At least not like they were in the early stages of the season, when their handling was so jittery and they were playing in a manner that suggested they weren’t quite sure what they should be doing and which change-room voice they should be looking for.
Skipper Jean de Villiers set the tone in the first half by eschewing kickable penalties, and those who believe that a tap penalty is the wrong choice would have been left with egg on their faces on two occasions in the first half when the Stormers scored tries after tapping the ball quickly. Ironically for a day when the Stormers’ attacking intent was so much on display, it was big front-row man Frans Malherbe who scored both of them.
The first came with scarcely three minutes gone on the clock as the Stormers made the perfect start. The penalty was kickable but the Stormers did the unexpected, which is perhaps key to what is different now, and after spreading the ball across the face of the Highlanders defence with pinpoint passing it was the forwards who smashed their way towards the line and Malherbe used his weight as he barreled over off the side of the loose scrum.
Of course, the quid pro quo to the attacking game appears to be that the Stormers’ defensive effort is now falling short. With the Cheetahs having crossed for five tries last week and the Highlanders also managing to score four in this game, it is a disturbing fact that the Stormers have actually conceded nine tries in the last two matches.
A couple of years ago, when they topped the log, the Stormers didn’t score much more than twice that number in an entire season. Winning was a habit back then rather than a rare event like it is now, so perhaps the Stormers should temper their celebrations with the knowledge that they still have a lot of work to do before they can consider themselves to have got the balance right.
It is pointless switching from having a defensive mindset to an attacking mindset, you need something in the middle if you are going to be consistently victorious, and the Stormers were perhaps a little fortunate that Highlanders replacement hooker put in a dangerous tackle on Jaco Taute that he was carded for with 14 minutes to go.
The Highlanders were coming back strongly at that point and had scored two quick-fire tries when Stormers hooker Scarra Ntubeni was off the field after being carded for cynical defensive style. That enabled the Highlanders to claim the lead for a while after earlier in the game they had been 19-7 down.
Tries against the Stormers just seem to be coming a little too easily suddenly, and the Highlanders were able to score two tries in a first half where they had hardly any possession or territory. Their first try was scored when Aaron Smith, brilliant for most of the game, burst through a hole in the defence near a breakdown and kicked over the last remaining defender before chasing the ball and scoring.
That brought the scores back to 7-all, with the start of the Highlanders counter-attack that resulted in the try being a Stormers turn-over when they were attacking inside Highlanders territory. The Stormers were playing at 100 miles an hour at that stage, and it elicited concerns on the Press benches that they might blow themselves out in the last quarter like the Cheetahs did in two successive games against Kiwi opposition.
Kurt Coleman was a revelation at flyhalf, and if the Stormers do want to persist with a more attacking approach, he is the No 10 to persist with as his distribution and all out attacking awareness just seems a couple of levels up from any of the other pivots. However, his goalkicking is as unreliable at present as Peter Grant’s is, as evidenced by him kicking two angled conversions but striking a 14th minute penalty right in front of the uprights into the left post.
The second Malherbe score, which was delivered by a delightful little backflip from the irrepressible Schalk Burger, who reveled in his return to Newlands, made the Coleman miss seem less relevant as the Stormers reclaimed their seven point lead, and they stretched the advantage to 12 when two great cut-out passes put Juan de Jongh into a gap and he drew the last man perfectly to put Damian de Allende in at the right corner.
The Highlanders bounced back with a try to Trent Renata that was created by a kick from Lima Sopoaga that Ben Smith rather fortuitously kneed ahead from near the corner flag and the Highlanders were back in the game as the Stormers led 19-14 at the halfway mark.
Another prop, Oli Kebble, who was on as a replacement, was credited with the near historic moment when the Stormers notched the four try bonus 10 minutes into the second half, but the Highlanders were able to overturn a 26-14 deficit with two converted tries while Ntubeni was off to give them a 28-26 lead.
It was an impressive comeback but it was ended by the Mitchell yellow card and the penalty that replacement Peter Grant kicked to give the Stormers a one point lead that they clung to for the rest of the game.
DHL Stormers - Tries: Frans Malherbe (2), Damien de Allende, Oli Kebble. Conversions: Kurt Coleman (3). Penalty: Peter Grant.
Highlanders - Tries: Aaron Smith, Trent Renata, Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa . Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (2), Renata (2).