The DHL Stormers got themselves back on track in their Vodacom Super Rugby challenge with a hard earned but deserved 33-19 win over the MTN Lions at Coca Cola Park in Johannesburg on Saturday night.
The win means the Stormers go into their bye week over the Easter weekend four points ahead of the second placed Sharks on the South African conference log. The two coastal teams clash in Cape Town in a fortnight. The win means the Stormers have thwarted talk of a possible mid-season slump after they suffered their opening defeat of to the Reds last week.
The Stormers controlled most of the game, which was played in wet conditions which made handling difficult, but had to survive several typically tigerish fightbacks from the Lions, who once again showed off their never-say-die attitude, particularly in the second half. The Stormers scored three tries to one, the third of those tries being scored by replacement centre Johan Sadie with two minutes to play, effectively clinching the match for his team.
It was a big day for the Stormers youngsters, who can be said to have survived a searching test of their depth, though there were also positives from some of the Lions youngsters, most notably flyhalf Burton Francis. Making his first start of the season at this level, Francis kicked a well taken drop goal and also made the break that led to his team’s only try to Warren Whiteley.
The Whitelely try put the Lions back in the game after they had trailed by 10 points for much of the early part of it, but the Stormers struck back almost immediately with a try that was created by an excellent cross kick from replacement flyhalf Lionel Cronje as the Stormers ran turn-over ball from deep inside their own half.
Cronje’s kick found Gio Aplon, who drew the defender before putting Juan de Jongh into space inside him. When De Jongh was eventually held up it was Conrad Jantjes who took the ball back towards the post before Jaque Fourie rounded off to restore the 10 point advantage. The score at half-time was 23-13 to the Stormers.
The Stormers were never headed in the game but were forced to thwart several prolonged Lions multi-phase attacks in the second half which provided a searching test of their renowned defensive system not to mention the commitment and resolve of the team.
The best period of play for the Stormers was the opening 15 minutes as they went out and made an early statement by dominating the Lions up to that point. The Reds were allowed to dominate the early collisions at Newlands the previous week and the Stormers were clearly determined not to let it happen again as they tore into the Lions from the kick-off.
It resulted in a 10-0 lead after as many minutes, with rookie flyhalf Gary van Aswegen kicking a long range penalty for the first points of the game before Danie Poolman carried the ball over from a recyle near the Lions try-line for his first Super Rugby try.
Van Aswegen was excellent in those early minutes, taking the ball up and also impressing with his passing game, but sadly for him, and the Stormers, he was carried from the field with what looked like a ligament injury sustained during the movement that led to the first try.
Cronje came on and did some things well and some things not so well – two of his restarts went directly into touch and he missed a kickable penalty in the last minutes that would have clinched the game – but the disruption could not have helped the Stormers. They weren’t quite as together and as zippy after Van Aswegen’s departure, and the Lions achieved some success in their ploy of making the Stormers uncomfortable with their aggressive defence and the way they attacked the breakdowns.
Not that it ever really looked like the Stormers would lose, though there would have been long periods of the second half where Stormers supporters would have been worried that their team was going to be punished for not nailing the victory down when it was there for the taking.
On three occasions during the second half the Stormers coughed up easy try-scoring opportunities. Two of them involved Gio Aplon, who would have put Conrad Jantjes over untouched had he just passed outside to the unmarked fullback on the tryline in the 51st minute.
It was a wet day in Johannesburg, with rain falling throughout the build-up to the game, so it wasn’t surprising that there were several handling errors during the course of the match and numerous turn-overs.
The Lions did not help their cause by having skipper Doppies la Grange yellow carded for a tip tackle on Jaque Fourie as they were trying to cut down a seven point deficit with 12 minutes to go. Scores:
Stormers 33 – Tries: Danie Poolman, Jaque Fourie and Johan Sadie; Conversions: Dewaldt Duvenage and Lionel Cronje 2; Penalties: Gary van Aswegen and Lionel Cronje 4.
Lions 19 – Try: Warren Whiteley; Conversion: Burton Francis; Penalties: Burton Francis 3; Drop-goal: Burton Francis.