The Stormers are not going to relinquish the South African Conference title without a fight judging by their brilliant 35-22 victory over the previously-unbeaten Brumbies at Newlands in the pick of the weekend’s SuperRugby action.
Although the Stormers are currently lying third in the conference standings, they are just three points behind the first-placed Sharks.
The Sharks have gone to the top of the conference after a thumping 64-7 win over the Rebels in Durban, but not too much should be read into that because the Melburnians were desperately poor and unable to secure much first-phase possession.
The Stormers, in contrast, were up against the competition-leading team who had dismantled the Sharks so impressively the weekend before. But this time the Brumbies were not able to physically dominate the opposition and, with the superb Stormers’ pack matching them in the collisions, the Australians were always chasing the game.
Brumbies coach Jake White perhaps divulged too much during the week when he expressed his confidence that his side could physically dominate the Stormers as well; if nothing else, it fired up the home side and the likes of Andries Bekker, Duane Vermeulen, Siya Kolisi and De Kock Steenkamp came out in a ferocious mood.
And the Stormers’ backs were no less impressive.
Current Springbok captain Jean de Villiers produced an inspirational performance at inside centre, while Gio Aplon was electrifying on attack. Elton Jantjies may not be the incumbent Springbok flyhalf, but on Saturday night’s showing he might just be the form number 10 in the country as he pulled the strings beautifully for the Stormers’ backline, showing wonderful vision, skill and awareness.
But the premier reason why the Brumbies’ four-match unbeaten run was finally ended was their failure to get forward momentum and Bekker was immense and prominent all over the field in ensuring the Stormers had the front-foot ball. South Africa’s best number 5 lock left many bemoaning the fact he is off to Japan at the end of the competition and will probably not be available for the Springboks.
In Durban, the Rebels made a tasty meal for the Sharks as the home side made up for their anonymous display against the Brumbies with a record 10-try feast.
Such was the dominance and vigour of the Sharks’ tight five that the Rebels were made to look rather foolish, conceding a couple of tightheads, making no impression in the lineouts and comprehensively losing the crucial battle of the gain-line.
Hooker Kyle Cooper, who is rapidly becoming a cult figure at Kings Park, gave another livewire display and scored a memorable try from 20m out, while 20-year-old Pieter-Steph du Toit looks a top-class prospect.
A thoroughly dominant scrum gave a rampaging loose trio a wonderful base to launch from and Keegan Daniel, Ryan Kankowski and Jacques Botes produced a marvellous display of support play and skilful attack.
Coach John Plumtree’s changes obviously sparked a more enthusiastic display from the Sharks and the Kings Park hierarchy will be delighted that members of the younger generation like Cooper, Wiehahn Herbst, Du Toit, Cobus Reinach, Pat Lambie and Paul Jordaan are making such progress.
But veterans such as Meyer Bosman, a sly old hand at inside centre, Tendai Mtawarira, the cornerstone of their pack, Franco van der Merwe, the leader of the lineout, their loose trio, and exciting backs Louis Ludik, Lwazi Mvovo and JP Pietersen are also still making vital contributions.
The other South African winners over the weekend were the Cheetahs, who completed their most successful tour ever with their third victory, 19-10 over the Western Force in Perth.
Apart from getting themselves in trouble by exorbitantly trying to run the ball from their own 22 on a couple of occasions, the Cheetahs were impressive, especially in defence.
Their attempt in the 27th minute to run the ball out of their own 22, having held the Force scoreless until then, was particularly expensive as a flustered Raymond Rhule passed the ball into a Force player, the visitors regained possession and quickly spread the ball wide for Winston Stanley to dive over in the corner for their only try.
It gave the Force the lead and they held it until the last 10 minutes when the Cheetahs showed the character and new maturity that had been missing in the last couple of seasons when they went down to numerous narrow defeats.
Riaan Smit, the replacement for the injured Johan Goosen in the number 10 jersey, then kicked a couple of penalties and then made the crunching tackle that dislodged the ball as the Force desperately attacked in the closing minutes. The loose ball was hacked ahead and right wing Willie le Roux, a conspicuous absentee from Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer’s plans thus far, was on hand to claim the match-winning try.
Another Cheetah who has been given short shrift by Meyer – openside flank Heinrich Brüssow – returned to the starting line-up and had a huge impact, especially at the breakdowns.
Bulls coach Frans Ludeke’s controversial selection backfired as the Bulls slumped to a 23-18 defeat at the hands of the Reds in Brisbane.
The introduction of some fresh faces up front, especially the return of Dewald Potgieter to the loose trio, certainly added some extra intensity to the Bulls’ early efforts, but the backline defence and the poor game plan gave little protection when the Reds’ elusive backs began stepping and weaving.
The Reds’ kickers did not pose any such threat and the Bulls could easily have won this game had they stuck to kicking the home side into the corners and pressurising their lineout.
But a flatfooted, often porous defence did not put any pressure on the Reds’ ball-carriers and, just to add to the growing sense of frustration, referee James Leckie did not officiate with any consistency either.
The one area where Leckie was consistent was in the yellow-carding of Jono Lance and Lionel Mapoe for tip-tackles. According to the details of the law, the decisions were correct because both Lance and Mapoe lifted their opponents’ legs beyond the horizontal. But neither tackle had any malicious intent whatsoever and Mapoe was particularly unfortunate because, in his case, prop James Slipper was actually leaping upwards anyway to evade the tackle.
The current rule on tip-tackles is ridiculous because it is open to exploitation by the ball-carrier and, if the IRB law-makers had any feel for the game, they would amend it. Reinach was the third unfortunate casualty of the nonsense law during the Sharks game.
Just to show how easily the Bulls could have won the game, outside centre JJ Engelbrecht came within inches of scoring a match-winning try after the hooter, but had just stepped on the touchline.
The Southern Kings were the least surprising South African losers of the weekend, going down 55-20 to the seven-time champion Crusaders in Christchurch. The Kings actually scored first with a first-minute penalty by Demetri Catrakilis, but the Crusaders replied with two tries in the opening 15 minutes as the rookies seemed overawed by playing in Christchurch, away from home for the first time.
The in-your-face defence that characterised their previous games was strangely absent and they were soundly dominated in the rucks, again not committing enough players.
Flank Wimpie van der Walt did drive over for a try in the dying moments of the first half, but the Crusaders went into the break 31-13 in front.
The nerves obviously settled a bit in the second half and the Kings gave a better account of themselves, even though there was still some hesitancy in defence. Fullback George Whitehead capped an impressive game as he rounded off a great try in the closing moments, but the Kings now know that being on the road in Australasia is not a cosy experience for greenhorns.