A two try burst by the Vodacom Stormers in the last 10 minutes sealed a 22-13 win over the Lions in a pulsating final Super 14 league match at Ellis Park on Saturday afternoon, but the Cape team fell tantalisingly short of the four try bonus they were looking for.
The win at least ensured that the Stormers stay alive in the competition going into the last league match in Durban later on Saturday evening. It means that the Sharks either have to win by 19 points or more against the Chiefs, or pick up a bonus point for scoring four tries. It is going to be an agonising couple of hours for the Stormers, but in truth they will probably see an advance to the play-offs as a bonus now.
They made it hard for themselves earlier in the match by rushing play too much on attack, with the jitters that ran through the ranks responsible for leaving several tries on the table, particularly in the first half, when it was almost all the Stormers.
But the Stormers will at least be pleased to have grabbed the win, for the result was in the balance going into the last 10 minutes with the scores locked at 8-all, and with the Lions playing most of the game in the Stormers half, it looked like a shock defeat might be in store for the Stormers.
That though reckoned without the guts and character of a Stormers team that has now gone seven consecutive matches without a defeat. They opened up the play with some spectacular running and passing, there were a couple of surges through the middle, the Lions briefly regained possession and threatened, but then it was the Stormers who had the ball again and big Sireli Naqelevuki crashed over the try.
Peter Grant’s conversion made it a seven point buffer before the Stormers struck again, this time after some great running from all the Stormers, but particularly big lock replacement Ross Skeate, and reserve loose-forward Robbie Diack was over in the corner.
The Lions were out on their feet and you sensed that all the Stormers needed to do was get hold of the ball and another try, the crucial fourth one, would be in the offing. Sadly for the Super 14 contenders, it did not happen, and in their desperation to commit themselves to all-out attack the Stormers saw a try go the other way to Lions replacement Jannie Boshoff.
That really was that as far as the Stormers were concerned, possibly for the season, and that last score could yet prove crucial if the Sharks don’t pick up the bonus point and it goes to a points for and against count-out. But the Stormers, although there was an element of choke about the way they fluffed their opportunities earlier, can return to the Cape, if that is indeed where they are headed on Sunday, feeling proud of the way they have challenged.
The Stormers would not have been at all happy at half-time. They made a hash of too many lineouts, where Schalk Brits was uncharacteristically off target with his throwing, but they still had enough of the game in the first half to put the result beyond doubt there and then and make significant inroads into their quest for the four try bonus.
But they looked nervous and tense, trying to rush things too much, and this lack of patience translated itself into missed opportunities that just caused more frustration and caused the pressure to grow to the extent that soon the Stormers were caught in a vicious cycle.
There were at least three try-scoring opportunities wasted in the first half hour, one of them a great three on one overlap which somehow the Cape team conspired to make a mess of. Repeatedly the Stormers would make the initial break, and look to be building up for a score, only for desperate Lions defence to hold them out.
Grant did ensure the Stormers were the first on the board when he kicked a penalty in the 18th minute, but the Stormers had to wait until the 31st minute for their first try, which was scored by skipper Jean de Villiers off a buildup that exhibited all the virtues, such as patience, that were missing earlier and indeed later on in the match.
At that stage the Lions, who were guilty of some cynical professional fouling, were down to 14 men after referee Marius Jonker sent Walter Venter to the sin-bin for knocking down a Stormers pass when they were attacking.
The Stormers continued to press until the break, and continued to enjoy several opportunities as they surged through the middle, but it was a day where it has to be said they definitely missed the searing pace of the injured winger Tonderai Chavhanga. Wylie Human is an experienced player and did some great things, but is not the finisher that Chavhanga is.
For the Stormers to challenge for the bonus point it needed for them to score early in the second half and put even more significant space between themselves and their opponents. It did not happen, and instead it was the Lions who got in through a great try to former Western Province star Earl Rose, who was on the end of a pass from replacement scrumhalf Jano Vermaak as the Lions surprised the Stormers by running at them from deep inside their own territory.
That score inspired the Lions, who became more adventurous fter that, but if the Stormers thought the Lions committing to a more open game might help them, they were quickly convinced otherwise as again, up until the middle stages of the half, they were frustrated by their inability to hold onto possession.
Rose equalised the scores with a good long range penalty, and from then it was going to be a battle just for the Stormers to win the game. Almost all the rugby after that was played in Stormers territory as, in desperation, coach Rassie Erasmus rang the changes, with Tony Brown coming on at flyhalf, Peter Grant shifting to centre, Ross Skeate coming on for Andries Bekker and Deon Fourie coming on as the hooker, with Brits moving to the loose-trio.
The changes had their effect, but the next couple of hours will tell whether it was a case of too little, too late for the gallant Stormers, who enjoyed unexpectedly noisy and voluminous support from the Ellis Park terraces.
Stormers 22 – Tries: Jean de Villiers, Sireli Naqelevuki, Robbie Diack. Conversions: Peter Grant 2; Penalty: Peter Grant. Lions 13 – Tries: Earl Rose, Jannie Boshoff. Conversion: Earl Rose. Penalty: Earl Rose.