The DHL Stormers found their attacking range at the right time as they powered to a 44-34 win over the Cheetahs in their final Super Rugby league match in Bloemfontein on Saturday night.
The Stormers scored a four-try bonus point for only the third time this season, but they didn’t need it as all they required was a win to put them back into the top two and book an important bye for next week and, more importantly, automatic entry into the semifinal round.
It is the second successive year that the Stormers have finished second, and they will now wait to see who wins the qualifier in New Zealand next week between the Sharks and the Crusaders.
Either of those opponents would mean a massive day at Newlands, as they are both popular sides in the Cape.
Not that Stormers skipper Schalk Burger will be worrying too much about that now – right now all he will care about is that on Saturday night he will be able to let his hair down a bit as his men can put their feet up for a couple of days before resuming training.
The Stormers haven’t had a bye since Easter, so they need the break.
The Stormers led 19-13 at halftime but their control of the opening half was greater than the scoreline would suggest.
The Cheetahs scored a good try to Devon Raubenheimer after the hooter, but until then the Stormers were full value for a 19-6 lead.
They quickly regained their 13-point cushion when Juan de Jongh scorched down the left touchline for a try that made him look every bit a winger.
Until the final Cheetahs try three minutes from time, which enabled them to at least claim the rare feat of scoring four against the Stormers, the Cheetahs were never closer than 11 points to the Stormers after De Jongh’s try.
The Stormers had gone into the last weekend with an outside chance of ending top of the log. That would have happened had the Reds lost their game to the Chiefs in Hamilton, and in such an instance a four-try bonus might have been worth chasing.
But the Reds held off a spirited late challenge from the Chiefs, which meant the Stormers started the game playing for second spot.
That would have satisfied Stormers captain Burger, who said during the week that he would have been happy with a top-two position, which would mean automatic qualification for the semifinal round, due to be played in two weeks’ time. The Sharks went through as the sixth-ranked team, and third wildcard, by virtue of their excellent win over the Bulls at Loftus earlier in the day, effectively ending the two-year reign of the Bulls in this competition.
The Stormers are 160 minutes away from starting their own reign, for they are now one match away from making another final.
But they do already have a trophy, with Burger enjoying the privilege of holding up the South African conference trophy.
In time it may become a coveted trophy to play for, so the Stormers will enjoy being the first team to have their name inscribed on it.
The big one however, is the Super Rugby title itself, and on the night the only downer for the Stormers as they build up towards that, was the injury suffered by big No 8 Duane Vermeulen. “It didn’t look good but there is no news as yet, we will wait for the scans,” said Burger.
Vermeulen’s replacement, Nick Koster, celebrated his arrival on the field by ghosting between two Cheetahs defenders after an excellent off-load from the rampaging Rynhardt Elstadt, surely the finest of the many youngsters that have been bled into the team this season.
That try effectively ended the match as a contest as it put the Stormers 33-13 ahead, but full marks to the never-say-die Cheetahs for the way they just kept on playing.
Some of their attacking rugby in the last half hour was nothing short of sublime, and former Stormers player Rayno Benjamin celebrated with a hat-trick.
EXCELLENT YOUNG TALENT
The match effectively showcased the quality of the young talent coming through in South Africa. Cheetahs pivot Sias Ebersohn does look a very special player, and it was a great pity that his brother, Robert, had to limp off towards the end of the first half.
While the Stormers would not have enjoyed conceding those tries, they also kept the scoreboard ticking over themselves, first through an excellent try from Bryan Habana, who burst through onto a Cheetahs failure to field a kick-off to go over in the corner, and then two penalties from Peter Grant.
Grant was the recipient of the man-of-the-match award for his cool controlling performance at flyhalf, and with Louis Schreuder also doing well on his first start, the big difference between the Stormers team of this week and the one from last week was that they did have halfbacks.
The Stormers won’t be happy to have conceded four tries, but when their defence needed to be accurate in the first half it was, at least until Habana, who otherwise had his best game in ages, came off his line when the Cheetahs attacked up the right flank after the hooter, a penalty advantage to the Cheetahs eventually enabling them to swing the ball left for a try to Devon Raubenheimer.
No Stormers try was better than their first, though, with Gio Aplon superbly rounding the remaining Cheetahs defenders after a move that had started deep in their own territory and in which Vermeulen had carried strongly.
That was the first time in the game that the Stormers went into the lead and after that they never looked like relinquishing it.
Cheetahs 34 – Tries: Davon Raubenheimer, Rayno Benjamin (3); Conversions: Sias Ebersohn (4); Penalties: Ebersohn (2)
Stormers 44 – Tries: Gio Aplon, Juan De Jongh, Nick Koster, Bryan Habana; Conversions: Peter Grant (3); Penalties: Grant (6)