It was a brilliantly executed try off a turnover ball that won it, but DHL Stormers defence coach Jacques Nienaber deserves a special mention for the role his field of expertise played in his team’s thrilling 19-14 Vodacom Super Rugby win over the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus on Saturday.
There really wasn’t much that was thrilling about the game for most of the way. The Stormers were severely depleted and went in as rank underdogs, and with the Bulls frequently threatening to vindicate the pre-match predictions by strangling the visitors, for long periods it was just a case of the Stormers desperately trying to hang in there.
The first half was one where you felt that hardly anything happened, and though the Stormers were under pressure at the end of it, they would have been pleased to just be trailing 11-9 at the break.
The statistics from the game would make interesting reading – at one stage the Stormers had made 100 tackles when the Bulls had made just 35. But that was with a quarter of an hour to go, and that was when the Stormers, perhaps sensing that their plan of keeping the Bulls’ lead manageable was working, started to suddenly show up more with the ball.
Remember, the Bulls had flown back earlier in the week from New Zealand, so for once the coastal team didn’t have to worry about the altitude bogey. It was the inland team that had to worry about the possible effects of jetlag.
And they did look tired in those last minutes, with the frustration of battering away at the Stormers for such long periods without reward just finally catching up with them.
The Bulls were leading 14-9 when flyhalf Morne Steyn elected to kick for touch rather than at goal when the latter option would have pushed the Stormers to more than a score behind and perhaps quelled some of that strong resolve that Sharks coach John Plumtree had praised the Stormers for the previous week.
Frans Malherbe, the Stormers prop, had just been yellow-carded, so perhaps it made sense to set up the lineout in the corner with the Stormers down to 14 men.
But once again, as the Bulls had been for most of the game, they were denied by committed Stormers defence, and then the Cape side played their way back into the Bulls’ half.
When Peter Grant kicked a penalty to cut the deficit to two points, suddenly the impossible was looking possible, remembering too that the Stormers, knowing they were under-strength, had set the bonus point for losing by fewer than seven as the one non-negotiable.
By that stage the bonus point looked secured, and there was little prospect of them returning to Cape Town more than one point behind the Bulls on the Super Rugby log.
But the Stormers weren’t content with the bonus point, they wanted to win. They were getting stronger, and a great turnover from reserve hooker Deon Fourie set in motion the cross-field sweep with eight minutes to go that saw flank Siya Kolisi break the line off a great flat pass.
He had Bryan Habana up with him on his inside, and once Habana had the ball in his hand no-one was going to stop him from scoring between the posts.
Habana, so long the darling of this Loftus crowd, went over amidst an almost surreal silence from a Loftus crowd that probably realised by then that their team’s hopes of taking charge of the conference were disappearing.
With just seven minutes to go it was suddenly the Stormers’ game, and as they had tackled so manfully for the entire 73 minutes to that point, they were always in the pound seats from there.
A few times the Bulls had the hearts of Stormers fans all aflutter as they went through phase after phase in the quest for the winning try, but there was seldom any doubt the visitors would hold firm.
It was a notable achievement for the Stormers as the odds were so heavily stacked against them, and it also means so much to their Super Rugby challenge.
They have now taken a firm grip on the South African Super Rugby conference race going into the month break for international rugby.
Instead of trailing by a few log points as many thought they would be, they now lead the conference by five from the Bulls, who still have to play the Sharks in Durban.
With the likes of Schalk Burger, Duane Vermeulen, Andries Bekker and Nick Koster set to come back in the three matches that remain after the break, and the bulk of the forward pack being given an involuntary rest thanks to the Springbok selections, it would take a fool to bet against the Stormers winning the conference now.
And with three relatively easy games to come, plus the Crusaders and overall log front-runners, the Chiefs, still to play each other, the Stormers could even be in with a great chance now of coming first overall and thus ensuring home-ground advantage if they get to the final.
The Stormers are so often criticised for lack of attacking enterprise, yet in this match their opponents carried so much ball, and even dominated with their forward driving for long periods, and yet could score only one try.
That came in the 29th minute, Pierre Spies swiveling over from a tap penalty that the Bulls took near the Stormers’ line. That was the first time the Bulls went ahead in the game, as Peter Grant had ensured that the Stormers were the first on the board through a penalty in the 10th minute.
Morne Steyn leveled the scores three minutes later but the Stormers showed up well in those early stages, and sustained pressure forced another three pointer to make it 6-3 to the Cape team.
Once Spies had scored the Stormers seldom got their hands on the ball after that, and it looked as though they were about to surrender their top spot on the conference log.
The Stormers’ scrum had started well and was solid enough for most of the game, but where they surrendered so much in their battle for possession was at the lineouts.
The Bulls will kick themselves for not taking control when they should have, but you have to give credit to the Stormers, and particularly their never-say-die defence.
Sharks coach Plumtree had said the previous week that the Stormers had to be praised for the way they just refused to give up and go away. They were words that were to prove prophetic on a day when the Sharks had their interest in the conference title ended by the Lions, thus turning it into a two-horse race that the Stormers are now dominating.
Vodacom Bulls – Try: Pierre Spies. Penalties: Morne Steyn (3).
DHL Stormers – Try: Bryan Habana. Conversion: Peter Grant. Penalties: Grant (4).