The DHL Stormers suffered a 21-39 defeat to the Highlanders of New Zealand, as they opened their four-match Vodacom Super Rugby tour in a hard-fought and physical clash in Dunedin on Saturday.
The visitors, with the legendary Schalk Burger leading the side out on the occasion of his 100th match, began the match like a house on fire as new captain Juan de Jongh opened their account with a brilliant try in the 19th minute.
Burger, as one would expect, was heavily involved in the lead-up to De Jongh’s try with a clever off-load, but the visitors were unable to control the restart and found themselves under pressure soon after.
That pressure eventually told as the Highlanders’ All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith dotted down against the upright to level the scores – after Lima Sopoaga’s conversion – at 7-7 after 23 minutes.
Sopoaga then added a penalty almost ten minutes later, before Waisake Naholo picked up a loose pass to score a crucial intercept try – which Sopoaga converted – to suddenly put the Kiwis ahead by 17-7 with half-time approaching.
Unfortunately for the DHL Stormers, whose forwards held the upperhand for most of the first half, Naholo was at it again before half-time and his second score (in the 40th minute) made it 24-7 to the hosts at the break.
The DHL Stormers had to make it count soon after half-time but despite trading some big blows they were unable to turn that pressure into points and the Highlanders secured a four-try bonus point when powerhouse winger Patrick Osborne burrowed over between the forwards in the 48th minute.
Typically, however, the DHL Stormers – despite trailing by 31-7 – never gave up and an outstanding breakout, led by Burger and Siya Kolisi, saw them win an attacking penalty and Aaron Smith was yellow-carded for a cynical offence in his own 22.
Replacement loose forward Mike Rhodes crashed over for a try in the 61st minute – that after Kolisi had just been held up from an attacking maul – but that was then cancelled out by a Dan Pryor try to make it 36-14 to the hosts.
Again, the DHL Stormers came firing back, as they sniffed a potential four-try bonus point and perhaps even a losing bonus, and captain De Jongh scored his second try from a scintillating Cheslin Kolbe break, Louis Schreuder doing well in support as he found De Jongh on the goalline.
The Highlanders, however, kept the DHL Stormers pinned in their 22 from the restart – with just four minutes remaining on the clock at Forsyth Barr Stadium – and they could not break out in search of that fourth try.
The match then ended with a Highlanders penalty goal – by replacement Marty Banks – as the DHL Stormers were unable to celebrate Burger’s 100th match in style.
The DHL Stormers will return to Queenstown on Sunday – their base for the past few days – before making their way to Wellington next Thursday ahead of their meeting with the unbeaten Hurricanes the following day.
For the Highlanders:
Tries: A Smith, Naholo 2, Osborne, Pryor
Cons: Sopoaga 4
Pens: Sopoaga, Banks
For the DHL Stormers:
Tries: De Jongh 2, Rhodes
Cons: Catrakilis, Coleman 2
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (co-captain), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Brendon Edmonds.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Pingi Tala’apitaga, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Jason Emery.
Stormers: 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Juan de Jongh (captain), 12 Damian de Allende, 11 Dillyn Leyds, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Nizaam Carr, 7 Schalk Burger (vice-captain), 6 Siya Kolisi, 5 Manuel Carizza, 4 Jean Kleyn, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Scarra Ntubeni, 1 Steven Kitshoff.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Oliver Kebble, 18 Frans Malherbe, 19 Eben Etzebeth, 20 Michael Rhodes, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Kurt Coleman, 23 Huw Jones.
Referee: Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand)
TMO: Chris Wratt (New Zealand)