Attitude goes a long way on the rugby field and the Stormers brought it in spades against the Bulls at Newlands as they overwhelmed the South African Conference winners with a phenomenal display of focused aggression, unstinting defence and sparkling attack.
The Bulls’ 13-30 defeat means they go into the Vodacom SuperRugby playoffs in second position on the final log, meaning they will host a semi-final, but will have to travel to Hamilton if the defending champion Chiefs make it through to the final.
The Stormers’ top-class performance gave a hint of what potential there is in the side, and there was no escaping a bittersweet feeling at Newlands despite a rousing end to their campaign.
“It’s nice to end the season with a win, but it would have been nicer if we had performed like this throughout the year. We find ourselves in this position of not being in the play-offs because when the pressure was on us, we did not react the way we should have,” Stormers captain Jean de Villiers said after the match.
It was a victory based on a massive effort at the breakdowns, where the Stormers not only turned over the ball several times – mostly through the brilliant Deon Fourie and Bryan Habana – but also harried and hassled the Bulls, getting in the scrumhalf’s face to ensure the visitors’ possession was mostly messy and slow.
A team cannot hope to prosper against a side with a defence as watertight as the Stormers’ if they don’t have good, quick ball and forward momentum, and the Bulls’ chaotic display at the breakdowns meant they were seldom an attacking threat.
Heading into the semi-final, the Bulls’ performance at the breakdowns is now a major concern. They struggled there against the Sharks last weekend as well, but that was put down to the lack of control exercised by referee Jason Jaftha.
With the peerless Craig Joubert in charge at Newlands, the breakdowns were firmly and fairly policed, so it seems the Bulls have serious questions to ask themselves about their cleaning out and the way they protect their scrumhalf.
The sheer power of men like Eben Etzebeth, Rynhardt Elstadt and Nizaam Carr ensured the Stormers also seldom took a backwards step in the collisions and their transition from a struggling, flat-looking side to one that ended the season with five wins in a row has much to do with their return to Newlands.
On Saturday a capacity crowd certainly lifted them and they were inspired, playing like men possessed.
Coach Allister Coetzee will also be especially pleased with players like flyhalf Gary van Aswegen, lock De Kock Steenkamp and hooker Scarra Ntubeni, who are standing in for players of Springbok level but were all outstanding against the Bulls.
“We had a great season with nine wins in a row, but tonight we were given a reminder that we can lose focus,” Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said. “We cannot play like this if it is a knockout match like a play-off. It is more important what we take out of this match and we now know that the lineout is one area we’ll need to work on before the play-offs.”
Ludeke should also pay attention to the continuing scrum woes of the Bulls, where props Dean Greyling and Werner Kruger are continuing to disappoint. The Stormers front row are hardly world beaters and if the Bulls are to win the competition, they are going to have to take a big step up in that particular set-piece.
With so much front-foot ball, the Stormers showed that they are quite capable of playing dazzling attacking rugby. With De Villiers back in the side after a rib injury picked up in the June internationals, the backline had a general and the veteran Springbok put young opposite number Francois Venter and the up-and-coming JJ Engelbrecht firmly back in their place as he shredded the defensive line several times.
De Villiers and Habana combined superbly for the winger to score a try that left a memorable mark on his farewell appearance for the Stormers before heading to France.
In Durban, the Sharks hammered the Southern Kings 58-13 to also farewell the John Plumtree era in fine fashion.
The Eastern Cape team sent a second-string outfit to King’s Park in order to freshen up their key players for the vital promotion/relegation games against the Lions, and they were overwhelmed physically, really battling to get across the advantage line.
The physical dominance of the Sharks was epitomised by the Kings’ failure to once bring Bismarck du Plessis to ground in a tackle and if Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer is seeking more powerful ball-carriers, he need look no further than Jean Deysel, who was immense for the second week in succession.
The injured pride of the Sharks players was soothed by the 10 tries they scored, with Riaan Viljoen fitting in seamlessly in the flyhalf position, JP Pietersen producing an energetic display on the wing as he came back into the team after injury, and Odwa Ndungane being nothing short of inspirational in the fullback position.
The Sharks also ruled supreme in the lineouts, with little Keegan Daniel taking six balls on their own throw and stealing three off the Kings. The Sharks captain and eighthman had his best game in a long while, while loosehead prop Tendai “Beast” Mtawarira was prominent in the loose and scored a memorable try early in the second half to put the home side in front by 25 points.
The Kings had been competitive in the first half, keeping the Sharks’ lead to just 19-13 in the first half-hour. But the KwaZulu-Natalians took firm control of the game thereafter.
The vexed question over whether the rolling maul should be legal dominated the first half as four of the six tries scored came from what many pundits consider “legalised obstruction”. The defending team seem to be unfairly discriminated against at the moment and it is an aspect of the game the International Rugby Board will probably have on the agenda soon.
The other weekend matches settled the final playoff positions as the Crusaders saw off a determined challenge from the Hurricanes to finish fourth and the Reds edged out the Waratahs to claim fifth.
The Brumbies were upset by the Western Force in Perth and so stayed third, meaning they will now host the sixth-placed Cheetahs next weekend.
The other qualifier will be between the Crusaders and the Reds in Christchurch.
Final Combined Log
|1||Chiefs (NZ winner)||16||12||0||4||458||364||94||50||38||2||10||66|
|2||Vodacom Bulls (SA winner)||16||12||0||4||448||330||118||41||34||2||7||63|
|3||Brumbies (Aus winner)||16||10||2||4||430||295||135||43||31||2||8||60|
|6||Toyota Cheetahs (Qualifier)||16||10||0||6||382||358||24||38||32||2||6||54|