Stormers home in on conference title
The DHL Stormers moved to within one game of making sure of the South African conference trophy in Vodacom Super Rugby when they beat the MTN Lions 27-17 in an uninspiring match at Newlands on Saturday evening.
The Cape side controlled most of the game but just couldn’t deliver the killer blows when they threatened to do so earlier in the match, so the Lions were still in it with 12 minutes to go. And there would have been uncomfortable moments for Stormers fans on the Newlands terraces on a chilly winter evening when the Lions were hammering away at their team's line when they were just trailing by three points.
However, as they did at Loftus four weeks earlier, the Stormers stood firm, withstood the onslaught, and then capitalised on the commitment and resolve showed on defence. The guts and bravery was rewarded with a crucial turn-over, and a Jean de Villiers kick ahead was not controlled by the Lions' backs.
Through onto the ball came Gio Aplon, and under pressure it was the Lions who kicked the ball back over their own line and into touch in goal. From there the Stormers applied the squeeze, with a series of attacking scrums eventually resulting in a sustained attack which saw the ball spun to the left and replacement Jebb Sinclair over in the corner with his first touch of the ball.
Suddenly the Stormers had breathing space, which really they should have had anyway as they butchered enough opportunities during long periods of ascendancy earlier in the game, and they made absolutely sure of it when Gerhard van den Heever was put in space on the right. There was a sniff of a four-try bonus point with four minutes to go, but in throwing caution out the window in their endeavor to get their fourth, the Stormers ended up conceding what proved a consolation try to Lions lock Franco van der Merwe.
Not that the bonus point mattered as the win was enough to keep the Stormers comfortably clear of the second placed Bulls with just two matches to go. While the Stormers face a potentially difficult away game in Bloemfontein this coming week, the Bulls have an even tougher task as they go to Durban. It needs to be remembered too that if the teams end up tied on the log it is the Stormers who get the top spot by virtue of more wins, a statistic that cannot be changed in the Bulls' favour in these last weeks.
It wasn’t a great game but then the Stormers are significantly under-strength at the moment, with star players such as Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Burger, Rynhardt Elstadt, Eben Etzebeth, Bryan Habana, Joe Pietersen, Nick Koster and a few others all watching from the sidelines.
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Habana and Pietersen were withdrawn from the team due to flu on the eve of the match, and Danie Poolman started in the No 11 jersey in place of Habana, with Aplon going to fullback. Poolman ended up getting injured before the end of the half and was replaced by Marcel Brache. What other team would be able to survive such disruption and still keep winning?
The Stormers struggled in the scrums but the lineouts were executed with near perfection, and after a spell in the middle part of the first half where they couldn’t get out of their territory, it was the Stormers who had most of the game. Deon Fourie was named man of the match and deservedly so after a bustling performance, both as a hooker (initially) and then as an openside flank (later on).
He gave away a silly reversed penalty but it was also good to see Andries Bekker back in the thick of things and approaching his best form after struggling before taking an enforced break. The Stormers were never headed in the game, taking the lead in the early minutes with a Grant penalty to which the Lions replied with one from Elton Jantjes after 18 minutes.
Grant regained the lead for the Stormers with another penalty in the 26th minute and then four minutes later Aplon wriggled his way through after the Lions just ran out of numbers off a sustained build-up which stretched the Lions in both directions before they just ran out of defenders.
The Stormers could have delivered the coup de grace before halftime but were repeatedly held up just short as they swarmed all over the Lions. Full marks need to go though to the Lions for their defensive effort, with Butch James giving the Stormers, and Peter Grant in particular, a torrid time with his big tackles and attempts to disrupt.
The Lions try came out of nowhere, with skipper Josh Strauss surging through the middle off a loose scrum and bursting clear to score a try the Stormers would have felt disappointed to have conceded and which gave the Lions a sniff when really they should have been well out of it. The Lions had been down 13-3 at halftime and the converted try brought them back to 13-10 with half an hour to play.
Some of the star players will start returning from next week, so the Stormers can feel comfortable going into the last fortnight of the league phase of competition, and the smart money has to be on them being here at Newlands on semifinal weekend.
Stormers –Tries: Gio Aplon, Jebb Snclair, Gerhard Jacobus van den Heever, Conversions: Peter Grant (3). Penalties: Peter Grant (2)
Lions –Tries: Josh Strauss, Franco van der Merwe. Conversion: Elton Jantjies (2). Penalty: Elton