Crusaders end Stormers' run
Flyhalf Tom Taylor kept the Crusaders in strong Vodacom Super Rugby contention by scoring all his team’s points in their 31-24 win over the table-topping DHL Stormers in Christchurch on Saturday.
No South African team has won in the south island city since Northern Transvaal did the trick in 1996, but with the Crusaders having just returned from their road trip, this was thought to be the Stormers’ best chance of breaking that long sequence of defeat. It looked like it might just be possible when they trailed by one point but were building momentum against the travel fatigued Crusaders with 15 minutes to go.
It was then though that lock Rynhardt Elstadt was yellow carded for a high tackle that deserved a penalty but certainly not the sanction of being sent from the field. Referee Chris Pollock would have felt duty bound to make the call though, for he had carded Crusaders prop Wyatt Crockett for an equally innocuous challenge in the first half.
While the Stormers did not take advantage of having 15 men against 14 when Crockett was off the field, the Crusaders did. They kicked two penalties to push them out of range of the Stormers before the Cape team showed great character to hold the ball through several phases in the last move of the game that enabled them to force a penalty which earned them a deserved bonus point.
That point should ensure that they stay top of the South African conference after this weekend’s round of matches, but the Chiefs could overtake them on the overall log if they beat the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein later on Saturday.
The Stormers failed to cross the psychological barrier that they needed to after two defeats to these same opponents last year, and not being able to win against a team that had just travelled has to be seen as a big blow to their title hopes. But there were mitigating factors, with this being a game where the Stormers were plagued by bad luck in the second row.
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Apart from Elstadt’s misfortune late in the game (he had moved from flank to lock), the Stormers lost both their first choice locks to injury within 25 minutes of the game starting. First Andries Bekker left the field in obvious discomfort from what looked a back injury in the early minutes, and then Eben Etzebeth followed him with a shoulder complaint.
Losing both second row forwards was obviously a big disruption, and it forced the Stormers to play reserve hooker Deon Fourie on the flank. Fourie acquitted himself well there and even stole a few Crusaders balls at the breakdown, so the Stormers can consider themselves to have done well to remain competitive through the 80 minutes.
It didn’t look like being that way when the Crusaders started strongly, with the Stormers scramble defence only just containing them as the hosts swept upfield, the Crusaders playing 100 mile an hour rugby that threatened to outflank the highly rated Stormers defensive system.
The Stormers kept their line intact but gave away a penalty that enabled the Crusaders to take a 3-0 lead, and although the Stormers struck back to level the scores at 3-all through a Peter Grant penalty and later at 10-all, the Crusaders were never behind in the game.
Taylor scored his team’s only try not long after Grant’s equalising penalty, with the Crusaders striking with telling effect after Etzebeth had been turned over. The Crusaders impressed with the way they let the ball do the work in sweeping to the left, with some of the forwards showing astonishing skill moving up the touchline before the ball was transferred inside for the flyhalf to round off.
The Stormers bounced back when centre Juan de Jongh pounced on a rare Crusaders mistake at the back, the Springbok kicking a dropped ball through and winning the race to the touch down. With Peter Grant off the field having a cut attended to, Joe Pietersen kicked the conversion to tie the scores after 22 minutes.
It was a night though where Crusaders pressure forced the Stormers into conceding penalties, with Taylor kicking eight three pointers in all, and he was on target with the second of those in the 25th minute to take the Crusaders to 13-10. Even though down to 14 men at the time, they had enough of the game to make it 16-10 with another Taylor kick after 31 minutes, and Pietersen and Taylor traded further kicks to make it 19-13 at halftime.
The Stormers started the second half strongly, and a 43rd minute penalty saw the Crusaders lead cut to just three points before Taylor restored the six point buffer a few minutes later. But the Stormers were getting stronger, perhaps sensing that jetlag might catch the Crusaders later in the game, and they started putting together impressive multi-phase attacks.
One of those netted the Stormers perhaps their best try of the season so far, certainly from the viewpoint of a try actually being created by them, with the Stormers simply refusing to give up possession after capitalising on a poor kick from Israel Dagg, with a well weighted kick into the corner eventually sitting up perfectly for Bryan Habana.
The Springbok wing had used his pace a little earlier to get back and prevent what looked an almost certain Crusaders try as Dagg chased the ball towards the tryline, and certainly now looks to be back to his best form. Pietersen’s difficult conversion would have put the Stormers into the lead with 20 minutes to go had he landed it, but he pushed the ball wide.
Then came the ridiculous yellow carding of Elstadt and although the Crusaders looked tired there was always only going to be one winner once it was 15 men against 14 and the Stormers lost their momentum.
Crusaders – Try: Tom Taylor. Conversion: Taylor. Penalties: Taylor (8).
DHL Stormers – Tries: Juan de Jongh, Bryan Habana. Conversion: Joe Pietersen. Penalties: Peter Grant (2), Pietersen (2).