Stormers celebrate personal milestones with win
The Stormers started off against the Lions as if they were going to celebrate personal milestones for some of their individual players in emphatic and convincing style, but in the end they had to hang on for a fortunate 24-19 Vodacom Super Rugby win over the rank underdogs at Coca-Cola Park in Johannesburg.
Tiaan Liebenberg, playing his 50th Super Rugby game, celebrated his big moment by dotting down for the first Stormers try after just one minute and 20 seconds. Bryan Habana scored his 50th Super Rugby try a short while later, and after 25 minutes the Stormers were up 18-0 and looked to be heading for an emphatic victory.
But as much as the Stormers dominated the first 30 minutes so the Lions dominated the last 50 minutes, with the Stormers having to find that extra gear they have managed in their past few games in the final quarter to steady a decidedly listing ship and secure the result that leaves them as the only unbeaten team in the competition after the fifth round.
At stages after halftime it looked like it was only a matter of time before the Lions would take as strong a grip on the game on the scoreboard as they did on the field of play. But after cutting an 18 point deficit to just two points, the Lions finally got played back into their own half, the Stormers at last started to show some patience in carrying the ball, and Joe Pietersen kicked a penalty that steadied the nerves and brought some much needed composure to the visiting team.
Pietersen kicked another penalty just a few minutes from time to make the game safe, leaving the Lions with the consolation of grabbing a bonus point for losing by less than seven through an Andries Coetzee drop-goal off the last move of the game. Their coach John Mitchell though will be thinking his team should have got a lot more than that for their brave effort, though he would also be the first to concede that his tight forwards lost the game for his team in the first half.
The game started with Habana tapping the kick-off back for the Stormers. Peter Grant carried it up to create the momentum that eventually saw Liebenberg burst over the line after being put in by a superbly timed pass from Dewaldt Duvenage from a recycle near the line.
The Stormers tight forwards have been given a big rap this season for their performances in the set-phases, and they continued in that vein in the first half hour. The Stormers won a penalty at the first scrum, Andries Bekker comfortably poached the first Lions lineout throw, and Duane Vermeulen did it again a little later on.
But it is the scrum that has made the biggest step forward, and the Stormers unit made a complete mess of the second Lions put-in, winning a heel against the head off which No 8 Nick Koster brought Habana into play. Habana has looked rejuvenated this season and he expressed his confidence by hoofing the ball into the corner and chasing it down to celebrate his half-century in fitting style.
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Pietersen increased the lead to 15-0 after 20 minutes and then was on target again five minutes later after referee Glen Jackson had ruled against the Lions when Eben Etzebeth and Lions prop Pat Cilliers had been involved in a scuffle.
That though was the last time the Stormers scored any points for almost 40 minutes, and the turning point came when Lions scrumhalf Tian Meyer capitalised on a long period of sustained pressure by wriggling over near the posts for the converted try that cut the deficit to 11. With a bit of luck the Lions could have been well back in the game by the halftime hooter, but they were kept at bay by the physical Stormers defence as well as some at times poor decision-making on their part, and the teams took the break with the Stormers ahead 18-7.
When you are forging ahead and dominating the match there is at times a tendency to be too rushed and impatient, and that was possibly the main contributing factor in the Lions being allowed to get back into the game.
But boy, how the Lions played once they were given an opportunity to breathe, and full marks to their inexperienced team for their willingness to take on the Stormers physically. The game had swung so dramatically towards them by halftime that the statistics showed that the Stormers had been forced to make twice as many tackles, and the possession stats, which showed that the Lions enjoyed two thirds of the ball in the first 40, remained skewed in favour of the hosts throughout the second half.
Under pressure though the Stormers were able to turn to the strength that has been responsible for their achievement of making the top two on the overall log in both of the past two seasons, namely their outstanding defensive game. While they gave away too many penalties for the comfort of Cape fans, particularly ahead of next week’s visit to Newlands by the Bulls, they were also more accurate when it mattered than the Lions were and that was why they won the game.
MTN Lions –Try: Tian Meyer. Conversion: Butch James. Penalties: Butch James (3). Drop Goal Andries Coetzee
Stormers – Try: Tiaan Liebenberg, Bryan Gary Habana. Conversion: Joe Pietersen. Penalties: Joe Pietersen(4)