Late Grant penalty clinches thriller
Most Stormers fans would probably argue that it should never have had to come down to it, but what the Cape team did do by clinching a pulsating Newlands Super Rugby derby against the Vodacom Bulls 20-17 with just four minutes remaining was confirm that they have learned how to win close games.
It was the second big derby that the Stormers have won with a penalty kick in the last minutes this season. A couple of weeks ago it was the self-same Peter Grant who broke a similar deadlock against the Sharks and with almost exactly the same number of minutes remaining. Neither of them were easy kicks either -- the one against the Sharks was from the touchline, and this one, though from the middle of the field, was at the limit of the flyhalf’s kicking range.
After that kick the Stormers were impressive in closing down the Bulls, holding onto the ball for almost all of those final minutes as they drove upfield. Having a dominant scrum in the final quarter certainly helped them, and the physical dominance of the Stormers for most of the 80 minutes probably warranted a bigger victory margin.
You have to give credit to the Bulls for the way they fought back. You can say what you like about the Bulls, they do still appear to possess that championship quality that sees them capable of scoring points when they really shouldn’t be and also absorbing pressure that other teams would struggle to withstand.
They scored 10 points without reply during the first part of the second half when they were reduced to 14 men after big Flip van der Merwe had been carded for the umpteenth Bulls infringement. They had been warned by referee Craig Joubert at the end of the first half that “the next one is off”, so there couldn’t be any complaints, with the Bulls having conceded an uncharacteristic number of penalties as the result of the sustained pressure that was exerted on them during the first 40.
The Stormers were full value for their 14-0 halftime lead and with the Bulls at a disadvantage in numbers, a one sided result looked in prospect as the Stormers built up impressively, only for Juan de Jongh to be dispossessed just when a try that would surely have even at that early stage have sealed their victory looked a distinct possibility.
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Instead of the Stormers crossing though it was the Bulls who crossed at the other end of the field through the pacy Bjorn Basson. Suddenly it was 14-7 and it was game on, even more so when a few minutes later Morne Steyn was on target with a penalty.
There were certainly times in the second half when it looked as though the Stormers had fluffed it, and had they lost this game there would have been a lot of questions asked of their psychology as they surrendered their lead to have the scores locked up at 17-all going into the final minutes. For much of the third quarter it looked like the sequence that started last year, of the Stormers losing big home games they should have been expected to win, was about to repeat itself.
However the Stormers, as they have done in almost every game they have played this year, found that extra gear again and by winning a close one in such nailbiting fashion against their arch-rivals they probably made an even bigger statement than they would have had the game been more one-sided. The way the Stormers regrouped when the Bulls had come back to level the scores through a converted try to Wynand Olivier spoke volumes for their BMT.
The Stormers ship steadied ever so slightly when Joe Pietersen kicked a penalty in the 61st minute as the Stormers profited from the pressure they exerted from a good field position which was created by a massive scrum, replacement prop Frans Malherbe’s first since coming onto the field at the start of the last quarter.
Where the Stormers were falling down though was in their kicking game, and throughout the match the Bulls enjoyed a better field position than perhaps their possession warranted. The Stormers were too determined to run every ball back, something which switched the Bulls onto the idea of not kicking for touch at all. When the Stormers did kick, the chase was poor.
So the Stormers had their own game of Russian roulette to blame when eventually the Bulls launched an attack which quickly reduced the hosts to a disadvantage in numbers, and Olivier was able to dart in at the left corner flag. Mr Temperament, in the form of flyhalf Steyn, was of course wearing the pink of the Bulls in this game, and he would have surprised no-one when he raised the flags from the touchline to draw the scores level.
It was the first time since the 11th minute of play, when Pietersen was on target with his first kick, that the Bulls were level with the Stormers, and they were never ahead in a game which the Stormers dominated far more than the final scoreline might suggest.
Indeed it looked like being one-way traffic when, on the stroke of halftime, the Stormers added a try to the three Pietersen penalties that preceded it. Siya Kolisi, who played another blinder for the Stormers, was the man who had made the initial thrust across the advantage line, Andries Bekker bashed towards the line after a series of quick recycles from the Stormers, and then it was hooker Tiaan Liebenberg who powered over with the ball wedged firmly under his arm.
Pietersen’s inability to land what looked a relatively easy conversion was the only false note to a great ending to the half for the Stormers, who for most of the first 40 minutes dominated the arm-wrestle in a game which lived up to the pre-match hype in every sense. There were massive tackles, there was plenty of niggle and bruising, the clashes of body against body were frightening, and for most of the game the Stormers back three helped blunt the Bulls’ kicking game with their brave handling of the up and unders. There were also three good tries and a thrilling finish -- the return in Pretoria at the start of June is worth looking forward to.
DHL Stormers – Try: Tiaan Liebenburg. Penalties: Joe Pietersen (4), Peter Grant.
Vodacom Bulls – Bjorn Basson, Wynand Olivier. Conversions: Morne Steyn (2). Penalty: Steyn.