The Vodacom Stormers needed to make a statement and they did that with an impressive 27-6 win over the Waratahs in their first home Vodacom Super 14 match of the season at Newlands on Saturday evening.
The Stormers had easily man-handled the Sharks in a warm-up game some weeks back, they posted 50 against a Western Force second string in another preparation game, and last week they played only in the first half before winning 26-13 against the Lions in their first competition match.
But no-one in the Stormers camp was prepared to get too excited about those early wins, and it was generally acknowledged, both by the Stormers and their fans, that they would only really know how good they are once they had played a strong team like the Waratahs.
And a strong team the Waratahs certainly are, with much of the first quarter of the game belonging to them as they hammered away at the Stormers defences. It seemed only a matter of time before the dam wall would break, but the Stormers have become adept at playing good rugby without the ball, and the defensive line stood firm.
By the half hour mark it was as if they had absorbed all that the Waratahs could throw at them, and it was then they took control of the match. And this at a time when they had sustained the blow of losing skipper Schalk Burger, such a massive physical presence in the early stages, to a hamstring injury after 23 minutes. No matter for the Stormers, it was just the cue for Pieter Louw to come on and provide some vindication for coach Allister Coetzee’s view that as a player he is another Rassie Erasmus.
It was as if there was a switch of a light switch to transform the game, with the Stormers being galvanised by their first try to Francois Louw, and for the next half hour to 40 minutes the Stormers pack controlled proceedings against the highly rated Waratahs unit.
Louw’s try was the product of the sort of rugby the Stormers played so well as Western Province in the last ABSA Currie Cup season. They used a penalty to set up an attacking lineout, man of the match Andries Bekker drove forward after his own excellent take, and the excellent patience and control of the big men, as they battered at the Waratahs line, eventually paid off through Louw burrowing over.
Suddenly it was the Waratahs defending, the Stormers who were getting the ball just that bit quicker than they had been earlier, and the Aussies were forced to scramble. The Stormers’ pressure translated into penalties, and up stepped Joe Pietersen to land two crucial blows before half-time as the Stormers took a 13-3 lead.
The 10 point buffer of half-time was extended by a crucial score four minutes into the second half. The Waratahs had just drawn themselves back to within seven points with a penalty, when Kurtley Beale had a kick charged down in the corner by Bryan Habana for the Springbok wing to complete the score himself.
The 14 point lead only increased the Stormers confidence, and by now they were controlling the game, to the extent that it hardly came as a surprise when the impressive Ricky Januarie beat a few would be Waratahs defenders with a show of the ball as he sniped off the base, Habana weaving his way through for his second Super 14 try for the Stormers.
The decision to include Januarie ahead of Dewaldt Duvenage proved a masterstroke. His tackling was stupendous as he joined a host of players, including Duane Vermeulen, Tiaan Liebenberg, Louw, Juan de Jongh and Jaque Fourie in putting in massive hits that knocked the Waratahs backwards and often saw them relinquish possession.
By the time Habana had weaved his way over for his own second try, and the Stormers’ third, there were 24 minutes left. A 21 point lead meant it was really game, set and match and presented good reason for the 37 000 crowd to start their celebrations as a couple of Mexican waves swept around the ground.
It was the first time that the Stormers have won two consecutive games at the start of the season since 2004, and it may be a good omen for them that that was the year they last appeared in a Super rugby semi-final.
It is early days, and there is merit in repeating that old saying that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and a solitary victory certainly doesn’t create a place in the Super 14 top four, but there were so many aspects of the Stormers performance that were encouraging.
Since Rassie Erasmus arrived in the Cape the Stormers have played excellent rugby without the ball, and they certainly did that in this match, both in the first 20 minutes and again in the last 20, when it seemed that the Waratahs attempts to attack were so easily contained by the swarming Stormers defenders.
It was though the Stormers play with the ball in those middle 40 minutes that sent out a warning to the other teams as it is not often that the Waratahs concede three tries. It always looked more likely that the Stormers would score once they had absorbed the pressure of the first 30 minutes and it was a richly deserved and confidence building win.
Stormers 27 – Tries: Bryan Habana 2 and Francois Louw; Conversions: Joe Pietersen 3; Penalties: Joe Pietersen 2.
Waratahs 6 – Penalties: Berrick Barnes 2.