Stormers achieve their objective
With the rain taking the four-try bonus point out of the equation, the Stormers will feel like they achieved their objective with their 13-6 wet-weather win over the Cheetahs in their penultimate Super Rugby league match at Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
By pocketing another four log points with a record 13th win in 15 starts, the Stormers made absolutely sure that they lift the South African conference trophy for the second successive year, with the second-placed Bulls and Sharks now eight points adrift and competing only for wild-card places in the play-offs.
The win was also enough for Jean de Villiers’s men to be almost sure of top-two qualification, with the Stormers just needing a bonus point from next week’s final league match against the Rebels at Newlands to be sure of a top-two spot, which will mean automatic entrance into the semifinals.
And even if the Stormers did fail next week, it would still require the Brumbies to pick up a full house against the Blues.
So skipper De Villiers was stating the obvious when he said afterwards, “We are happy with where we are”.
Some critics will doubtless decry the fact that the Stormers didn’t get the four tries that would have pushed them to the top of the log.
But if they do that, they will be advertising a lack of understanding of the game,; it was obvious that the wet conditions in Bloemfontein were not conducive to a game where lots of tries would be scored.
What the Stormers needed to do was just make sure that they picked up the points for the win, which enables them to still be in the hunt for top spot on the overall log in next week's final round of league action.
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The Chiefs, one point ahead of the Stormers, have to go to Wellington to play the Hurricanes while the Stormers are hosting the Rebels. If the teams finish on the same number of points, the Stormers will be given top spot by virtue of their winning more games.
The requirements of wet-weather rugby actually suited a Cheetahs strength on the day, which was their scrum. For the second successive week the Stormers unit struggled, and that prevented them from being able to launch.
With memories of where they fell short last year against the Crusaders in the Newlands semifinal still fresh, this is an obvious area of concern for the Stormers.
Just in case they end up playing a semifinal in the wet, they should also take some time out to think about their field kicking game, which was good to start with but got progressively worse at Vodacom Park, with far too many kicks going directly out.
That said, what was important on the day was that they got ahead in the arm wrestle, and that they did courtesy of an superbly targeted kick behind the Cheetahs backs from man of the match Peter Grant with 25 minutes to go.
It was clever play from Grant for the Cheetahs had fullback Willie le Roux off in the sinbin at the time, and with no-one there the ball sat up perfectly for Gio Aplon to go out as he pleased.
The converted try broke a 6-all deadlock and effectively wrapped up the contest, with the Stormers content after that to kick onto the Cheetahs and wait for them to make mistakes.
“The conditions were terrible and it was one of those days when it was better not to have possession of the ball,” said De Villiers.
Asked if he regreted not getting the bonus point, De Villiers took a philosophical view.
“The conditions were not suited to try-scoring so we have to be satisfied with the win. It is what it is, and the Cheetahs also played the conditions really well,” he said.
The Stormers looked as though they might make a fist of the quest to get four tries, if there ever was one, early in the game when they surged onto the attack.
On a day when the forwards were going to be so important, one driving maul that ate up 40 metres served as an ominous warning to the Cheetahs, but the visitors weren’t able to repeat it later on, with the Cheetahs effective at getting in among the Stormers forwards.
Here Ashley Johnson played a crucial role for the hosts when he came on as a replacement, while Heinrich Brussow repeatedly robbed the Stormers of much needed momentum by effecting turnovers at the breakdowns.
The Stormers were the dominant team in the first half hour in terms of possession and territory, but were only able to score three points in that period through a Grant penalty.
In the last 10 minutes of the half the Cheetahs came more into the game, and Riaan Smit kicked a penalty to level the scores at 3-all at halftime.
The Stormers started the second half with a lot of intensity, and hammered away at the Cheetahs line for five minutes, turning down two or three kickable penalty opportunities before finally deciding to go for posts as Le Roux was carded on the 45-minute mark for being deliberately offside as the Stormers attacked.
Grant’s kick re-established the earlier three-point lead for the Stormers but Smit drew three back in the 51st minute of a match which was a bit like an Australian derby in the way it reminded those watching of what it must be like to watch paint drying.
Aplon’s try made sure that it wasn’t a tryless game and also secured the Stormers the win that puts them in the good place their captain referred to.
Toyota Cheetahs – Penalties: Riaan Smit (2).
DHL Stormers – Try: Gio Aplon. Conversion: Peter Grant. Penalties: Grant (2).