Another man of the match performance from fullback Joe Pietersen was the spark that the Vodacom Stormers needed as they finished their Super 14 season with a 28-22 win over the Vodacom Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
The win lifted the Stormers, who led 17-10 at the break, to 10th from the 11th position they held at the start of the weekend. It was probably six or seven places adrift of where they hoped to be when they did their pre-season planning, but at least in winning three of their last four games they have picked up some momentum ahead of the Currie Cup season.
The Cheetahs, although finishing last in the Super 14, will be one of the favoured teams during the under-strength phase of the domestic tournament, so the ease with which the Stormers beat them on their home ground with a team missing most of their Springboks was highly encouraging from a Cape rugby viewpoint.
The final score reflects that there was only six points in it, but the reality is that the Stormers won much easier than that. They led 28-10 with eight minutes to go, and the two late Cheetahs try were both of the consolation variety, with the Stormers lead not under any threat.
Pietersen, who was back-up flyhalf in the early weeks of the competition but was then dropped, has certainly made the most of his return to the team in a position where he looks far more comfortable.
He scored two excellent tries, one in each half, to take his tally of five pointers to four from just two matches. The first was a morale-boosting score on the stroke of half-time, with Luke Watson’s little burst off the back of a set-scrum creating the space from which the Stormers backs were able to put the pacy Pietersen in near the corner.
His second try came just short of the hour mark and effectively wrapped up the game for the Stormers as it propelled them into an 18 point lead. Part of that buffer was created by some excellent goalkicking from former Cheetahs pivot Willem de Waal, who returned to his old stomping ground to haunt his erstwhile teammates.
But the Stormers defence, as always, also played a big part, as did an outstanding scrumming effort from a forward unit that has really grown in stature over the past few weeks.
The family bereavement that saw JD Moller miss this game offered an opportunity to Wicus Blaauw at loosehead, and he responded to the challenge in magnificent fashion as he helped the Stormers gain a dominance in this phase which is rare for them against the Cheetahs.
With Brok Harris having already made a massive impression after returning from a long injury lay-off in the win over the Highlanders in Dunedin three weeks ago, and Tiaan Liebenberg back from Toulon to add his weight at hooker, the Stormers are suddenly looking quite healthy in an area where they were seen to be lacking.
The one member of their tight five though that definitely won’t be there for the Currie Cup is AJ Venter. The 25-Test Springbok was playing his 125th Super 14 and last first class game, and he turned in a solid 80 minute performance that belied his age.
The Stormers were always lagging in terms of possession but it was in the all-important territory game that they were dominant. That and the battle for loose-ball, where the magnificent Luke Watson turned in a performance that cancelled out the efforts of the excellent Cheetahs fetching duo of Hendro Scholtz and Heinrich Brussow.
Their inability to control the loose exchanges appeared to get to the Cheetahs, and at times they appeared to lose their composure, with some of their behaviour towards Watson, though predictable, bordering on the boorish.
The Cheetahs started well enough, and after going 7-0 up after five minutes through a try to scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius that was fashioned by a superb break from Meyer Bosman, it was they who had the early momentum. They could easily have gone 14 points clear soon after as Naas Olivier kicked through, but the chance was denied.
The Cheetahs simply made too many elementary errors to really challenge. Some of them were forced though, such as the big tackle that turned over Juan Smith in the 14th minute and from which the Stormers attacked with great precision as Dylan des Fountain bisected the home defence to level the scores.
A De Waal penalty from long range made it 10-7 to the Stormers, and they were never headed again in the match as Stormers coach Rassie Erasmus retained his 100% record against his old team.
Cheetahs 22 – Tries: Sarel Pretorius, Nico Breedt and David de Villiers; Conversions: Naas Olivier 2; Penalty: Naas Olivier.
Stormers 28 – Tries: Dylan des Fountain and Joe Pietersen 2; Conversions: Willem de Waal 2; Penalties: Willem de Waal 3.