The DHL Stormers laid down a marker in the battle for South African conference honours in Vodacom Super Rugby as they scored an emphatic 27-17 win over the Blues at Newlands on Friday night.
It is still early doors in this competition, particularly in a season where there are 16 league matches and the final is only played in August after a three week break for international rugby. But the Stormers, who again were as dominant in first phase as they were in the battle of the gainline, will be familiar with their top position in the local conference. It was where they were for most of last season.
It means the pressure is increased on the Sharks as they go into their home game against the champion Reds in Durban on Saturday. Another defeat for the Sharks will mean daylight starts to open up between them and their coastal rivals in the battle for the conference top spot.
The Stormers’ chances of retaining their conference trophy were considerably enhanced by this performance, not so much by the log points picked up as that was expected in this home game against a depleted Blues team who had just a six day turnaround after a bruising encounter against the Bulls at Loftus. The Stormers by contrast have had 13 days off as they took their bye last week.
Rather the step forward came via the message that was drummed out by the quality of the Stormers’ physical effort as they smashed the Blues at the point of contact and thus confirmed that they retain the strengths that saw them finish in the top two both in 2010 and 2011.
It was a considerable lift from the previous efforts against the Hurricanes and the Sharks, and they effectively shut the Blues out in the first half and forced them to play away from their preferred template of keeping ball in hand. Whereas there were aspects that were good in the previous matches, this was a much better allround performance.
That said, the penalties that have been forced by the scrum have been gold for the Stormers so far this season, and none was more important than the one that enabled Joe Pietersen to end what was starting to look an ominous Blues fightback as they came back into the contest in the third quarter.
The New Zealanders had fought back from a 21 point deficit to only trail by seven points when Pietersen steadied the boat by slotting the three points that re-established some sort of buffer for the Stormers with eight minutes to go.
For times in the second half Stormers fans with good memories might have been shifting uncomfortably at the prospect of the Blues doing to their team what the Stormers did in Auckland the last time these teams met. In that game it will be recalled that the Stormers, as understrength as this Blues team was, fought back from being 19-3 at halftime to win it at the death with a Dewaldt Duvenage conversion.
PERIOD OF PRESSURE
Such a result looked unlikely when the Blues were being forced into errors during a first half when they were being smashed physically, and images of a repeat of the big win over the Crusaders here in 2010 (42-14) were being evoked.
Coming to the Mother City these days has become a frightening prospect for any touring side, as the Stormers these days are a formidably imposing physical obstacle at least the equal of the Bulls. They would have left the Blues licking several physical wounds as they head back to New Zealand after their bruising stop-overs in Cape Town and Pretoria.
It has been the way they have upped their physical game over the past two seasons that has seen the Stormers rise from the depths of the previous era to become consistent Super Rugby challengers. The Stormers simply never allowed the team from Auckland into the game as they shut them out in almost all aspects of play.
When Jean de Villiers weaved his way in and out of a few Blues defenders from close range 28 minutes from time victory looked almost certain for the Stormers, but in reality that had looked like being the case from the opening quarter. Then, almost from nowhere, the Blues started to hit their straps in a second half they dominated.
They started the fightback with an excellent try to outside centre Benson Stanley after a period of pressure which saw the ball go through several recycles inside the Stormers 22, eventually was spread wide and Stanley split the defenders.
Then with 15 minutes to go it was prop Charlie Faumiania who went over after another period of sustained pressure in which the ball had been held up on a couple of occasions before eventually the Blues forced their way over. Suddenly it was a seven point ball game and it required some memory to recall when last the Stormers had the ball.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the 26th minute of the half that they had the benefit of their first throw at the lineout, and maybe it wasn’t coincidence that it was then that they settled the ship. Like the match against the Hurricanes and also the derby against the Sharks, the Stormers proved their commitment and spirit by striking back just when it looked like the opposition might be taking control.
The Blues, perhaps not helped by the physical toll of Loftus just six days previously, couldn’t summon the passion that the Stormers did 10 months ago in Auckland in the early stages of the game, and that is why they lost for it was then that the Stormers established their platform.
One of the heroes of that victory in Auckland was scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage and he was so again. Duvenage was responsible for providing the subtle touches that completed this bludgeoning Stormers performance, with both his decisiveness in clearing the fringes and his kicking game playing a massive role in ensuring the hosts had the right mix to their game.
It was Duvenage’s pinpoint kick into the corner in the 15th minute that set up the Stormers’ first try, with the bounce wrong-footing the Blues defenders just enough to enable Bryan Habana to come steaming through to collect and score a try which should be a personal confidence booster for the often maligned winger.
DHL STORMERS – Tries: Bryan Habana, Jean de Villiers. Conversion: Joe Pietersen. Penalties: Pietersen (5).
BLUES – Tries: Benson Stanley, Charlie Faumuina. Conversions: Gareth Anscombe (2). Penalty: Lachie Munroe.