A relentless defensive effort earned the Stormers an 18-11 consolation victory over the Highlanders in Dunedin.
The result is all the Cape franchise will care about, as it ends a four-game losing streak and ensures they head back to South Africa with at least one win from their tour. It was hardly a clinical performance, but for a team starving for victory, they’ll take the win and build from that.
You’d never have predicted the outcome after watching the first half, as although the Highlanders were lacking intensity, they were taking their opportunities. The Stormers, while making much of the play, continued to botch chance after chance.
The return of Willem de Waal went as expected. The conservative flyhalf offered little attack and his kicking game was poor. Both points were highlighted in his shocking drop attempt in the 24th minute. He never showed any patience on attack and was too quick to kick (and kick inaccurately) before considering any alternative.
The ploy to play another kicker in Peter Grant at 12 didn’t work as planned, and Conrad Jantjes had an equally forgettable night with the boot. Grant had a chance to take the lead early on, but sent a reasonably simple penalty attempt wide.
Conversely, Highlanders flyhalf Mat Berquist made the most of his opportunities goaling two penalties in the first half. Berquist was ably supported by Jimmy Cowan and Israel Dagg in the kicking department, and against the run of play, the Highlanders led 6-0 at the break.
The visitors blundered a number of scoring opportunities, poor passing and ball retention preventing any forward momentum. They did alright at the lineout and stood up admirably in the scrums, but still battled to dominate and provide their backline with front-foot ball.
It took a turnover early in the second half to get them on the board, Grant snapping the ball up in his own 22 and freeing up Sireli Naqelevuki. The Fijian flew down the left hand touchline but could not get the ball close enough to the poles for De Waal to convert.
De Waal goaled a subsequent penalty, and the relinquishing of the lead also seemed to galvanise the Landers into action. Dagg hit the line beautifully and drew the last man, gifting Ben Smith an easy run in to the corner.
The Stormers were sloppy at the breakdown, and those little handling errors endemic to their game continued to cost. They lost the ball on the Highlanders’ line at a crucial period, and although De Waal kicked a penalty to level the scores at 11-11 two minutes later, it looked to be a heartbreaking mistake.
Cue the belief coach Rassie Erasmus has talked about for the entire tour. The Stormers outplayed the Highlanders in terms of intensity at the breakdown, and in the latter stages, they had the accuracy to complement this energy. The hosts seemed to tire in the final quarter, and after defending for a sustained period, saw Grant jet in for the Stormers’ second try.
The Highlanders had several chances to level the scores, but the Stormers refused to be breached. They continued to take the fight to the hosts at the breakdown, and drove the much-fancied Landers’ forwards back with some jarring hits just inches from their own tryline.
After a great game, Dagg made the unforgivable error of putting a penalty kick for touch beyond the dead ball line. This final loss of possession saw the Stormers assume control and run down the clock.
Erasmus’s charges will not make the play-offs but they have avoided the ultimate humiliation of a winless tour. Their record now stands at three from 10, and their job now is to ensure they improve that record in the remaining weeks and aid the Sharks and Bulls in the process.
By Jon Cardinelli