A Jimmy Gopperth drop-goal in the final minute of their Super 12 match condemned the Investec Stormers to an agonising 12-9 defeat to the Hurricanes in Palmerston North on Friday.
Now the Cape Town-based team faces an uphill battle to still qualify for a place in the semifinals.
It is going to be a long uphill struggle for the Stormers from here if they want to emulate last year’s performance and make the semi-finals. In essence, it means they will have to win all five games as well as the one against the Bulls in Pretoria, as well as rely on the other challengers to slip up.
One of those challengers is the Hurricanes, who should look back on the Gopperth drop-goal as a far more significant moment to their challenge than it was a death-knell to the Stormers. .
.The Stormers now have eight points after five games, a much leaner harvest than they would have hoped for. They also return home to Cape Town having failed to win on their overseas tour, the first time this has happened since they played as the Western Stormers in 1998.
This was not a game where you could question the Stormers’ commitment. They played with great passion from the opening minute of a match which was played in wet conditions and which never featured a try from either side.
But the Stormers, who led 6-3 at halftime when they should have been further ahead, should be kicking themselves for not taking at least four points from this game as they had more than enough opportunities to win it. Indeed, for long periods the Stormers held a telling territorial ascendancy and it looked only a matter of time before they would score the try that would put the issue beyond doubt.
This was particularly so when they led 9-3 at one stage of the second half, but the much improved handling of the first half was gradually whittled away later in the game by a plethora of mistakes that undid much of the good that had gone before.
The Hurricanes, after looking out of it with 20 minutes to go and who were defending desperately as late as the 75th minute, when the scores were deadlocked, were able to profit from those mistakes and turn the pressure back onto the Stormers.
The South African team can look back on a match where the forwards were impressive, with the scrum frequently placing the Hurricanes under pressure. Although the Hurricanes slightly shaded the ruck and maul count, this was another area where the Hurricanes received the ball that they did get on the back foot, chiefly because of the good work of the irrepressible Schalk Burger and Luke Watson.
The lineouts were also far from being the disaster they were last week, and the Stormers looked their most dangerous when they drove off this phase.
However, the Stormers again let themselves down with wrong options.
Repeatedly the Stormers built themselves up into good attacking positions only to lose possession through ill-timed and ill-directed chips and grubbers.
Given the conditions, use of the boot was justified, but it was overdone and, not for the first time this season, the Stormers were made to pay for it. One of thse came in the 70th minute when the Stormers were camped down on the Hurricanes line. All that was needed was a try to win the match, but when the ball went to the backs it was put onto the boot and into the hands of the Hurricanes.
For once it was the opposition who had more players carded than a South African team. But when the Hurricanes were reduced to 14 men shortly before halftime the Stormers could only add a three pointer to Chris Rossouw.
Referee George Ayoub blundered when he failed to penalise a Hurricanes player for a blatant trip when Jean de Villiers was setting out after a ball he had kicked ahead on one occasion when this was the right option.
Werner Greeff, who mixed some bad with a lot of the good he did in this game, chased it down but was ruled to have stepped in touch. The Stormers should have had at least a penalty though as De Villiers was in a good position, and the pendulum swung cruelly against the Stormers when the ref ruled that Quinton Davids had tripped a Hurricanes player when he fell to the ground late in the game.
It was from this penalty that the Hurricanes went onto the attack for what was to be the last time in the match. It was enough for Gopperth to get the drop-goal that was needed on a night when the Stormers can justifiably claim to have been a little unlucky. There again, there is much truth in that old saying that good teams make their own luck.
Hurricanes 12 – Penalties: Jimmy Gopperth 3; Drop goal: Jimmy Gopperth.
Investec Stormers 9 – Penalties: Chris Rossouw 3.