The Investec Stormers did South Africa proud on Saturday by beating the Sharks 31-24 in a tense last-round Super 12 match to seal a spot in the semifinal.
The Cape side now have to travel to Christchurch for their clash with the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday. The Stormers not only had to win the Durban game, but added to that had to score four tries for a bonus point in order to qualify for the play-offs.
And after two Sharks tries early in the first half, the odds were stacked against Selborne Boome and his troops. However, they managed to slot into a nice rhythm and in the end thoroughly deserved their win.
Stormers coach Gert Smal was an elated man afterwards. He admitted that the win was exactly what they wanted, because they ensured that they would not have to travel to Canberra for the difficult encounter with the Brumbies.
“This was the result we wanted. We wanted to go this route if at all possible rather than go to Canberra,” said Smal.
Skipper Selborne Boome concurred with the coach. He said that when the Stormers left Christchurch after the league game last week, they told their opponents they would be back and seeing them in the semifinal.
“We had a feeling we would end up playing the Crusaders, and we believe we can beat them. They scored a good win last week against us, but we made mistakes that we believe we can rectify,” said Boome.
The Stormers scored five tries to the Sharks’ four, but had to fend off a strong fight-back effort from their hosts, who erased a 14-point deficit to just two points with nine minutes to go.
The Stormers looked jaded at that point, but they dug deep to see off a strong resurgence from the Sharks. Flank Schalk Burger clinched the game with a late try, but not before the ball bobbled once tantalisingly from his grasp before he re-gathered to crash over.
Flyhalf Gaffie du Toit failed with the conversion, but by then the victory was sealed. The Stormers edged ahead of the Chiefs, who had started the day in third position four points ahead of them on the log, by virtue of better points’ difference.
The Sharks started with great intent and purpose and were on the board almost immediately as No 8 Russell Winter came through the lineout onto a poorly tapped Stormers ball and when the ball sped wide off the recycle to the right it was centre Adrian Jacobs who wrong-footed the defence to complete the score.
That was a poor start for the Stormers lineout, but thereafter it was mostly the Sharks who battled in this phase. They frequently tried long throws and it brought little reward. Still, the Sharks continued to have much of the early part of the game, with James missing a penalty attempt before in the 11th minute Henno Mentz ran through some ineffectual Stormers tackling to make the score 12-0.
The home side suffered a blow when influential flyhalf Butch James left the field with a knee injury. The Stormers pack began to control proceedings, with Schalk Burger particular prominent on the drive.
But slowly and surely the Stormers began to get their game together, with the Sharks falling away in the last 15 minutes of the first half to the extent that the Stormers were able to score two converted tries to gain the initiative at the break.
The first came in the 26th minute to man of the match Pieter Dixon as the Stormers profited from an overlap off a quick turn-over ball from a ruck.
The second of those, which was scored almost at the restart with Chavhanga rounding the Sharks defence out on the right, was probably the most important psychological score of the game as Boome admitted that his men felt out of gas at the break.
The Stormers desperately needed a fourth try to seal the bonus point and ensure that a victory would be enough for them to advance, and they pressed hard for it in the next 10 minutes or so before Werner Greeff scorched through from some distance out off yet another turn-over ball.
To most it looked like it was game set and match, but they, and perhaps the tired Stormers, reckoned without the fighting spirit of the Sharks, who struck back with tries to Trevor Halstead and skipper John Smit, who was off for a time just after halftime suffering from an upset stomach.
Chris Rossouw came on for Werner Greeff in the 58th minute and Greeff will have to have a shoulder injury assessed before he can be cleared to fly out with the Stormers for the semi. Rossouw also sustained an injury in his time on the field that will require assessment.
This is the second time that the Stormers have clinched a semifinal place, with the previous one being in 1999.
They now have an outside chance of making it a home final if they beat the Crusaders and the Chiefs trounce the Brumbies.
Investec Stormers 31 – Tries: Pieter Dixon (26 min), Schalk Burger (37 min), Tonderai Chavhanga (41 min), Werner Greeff (56 min), Burger (85 min); Conversions: Gaffie du Toit (3).
Sharks 24 – Tries: Adrian Jacobs (1 min), Henno Mentz (10 min), Trevor Halstead (61 min) and John Smit (74 min); Conversions: Noel Oelschig, Brent Russell