The Stormers cruised to a comfortable 38-10 win over the Bulls’ B side to secure a home play-off.
Those who expected a brutal tussle between South Africa’s super powers bore witness to an almighty anticlimax. It’s not that the full house at Newlands expected anything but a Stormers’ win, but the one-sided contest made for a flat end to one of the most competitive league finishes in Super Rugby history.
To say the Bulls were outclassed is an understatement. The cliche ‘Men vs Boys’ is more apt, as the hosts dominated in every department without breaking a sweat. If they were more clinical they may well have surpassed sixty or seventy points, but you couldn’t blame them for conserving their energy ahead of next week’s semi-final.
On attack, the Stormers rarely sought contact, preferring to have a crack at the Bulls’ shaky defence out wide. It’s not too often you see Schalk Burger and Duane Vermeulen passing the ball from midfield, but against the young Bulls, it proved effective. Burger’s floating pass in the seventh minute found Habana for the simplest of scores, and the most ardent of Bulls fans at Newlands began to fear the worst.
Burger pointed to the posts when presented with three kickable opportunities, and Peter Grant’s accurate boot ensured the lead was stretched to 13-3 by the 16th minute. The Stormers made a number of errors in their frantic efforts to breach the Bulls, but when they depleted the visitors through a series of forward carries, the wide ball was flung to a grateful Habana in the very same left-hand corner.
In the absence of Victor Matfield, the Stormers’ lineout won the ball at will, and while Andries Bekker was at his dependable best in this facet, he produced another awesome display in open play. His linking in the wider channels was impressive, but his try in the 29th minute highlighted the improvement in tight game. Bekker brushed past several challengers before reaching over to plant the ball.
It was all the Bulls could do to spoil, and Grant kicked another penalty to end the half with a 28-3 advantage. The Bulls’ defence and breakdown effort was inferior, but their attack was horribly out of sync. Heini Adams and Jacques-Louis Potgieter weren’t given quality ball with which to play, but they didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory when presented with an opportunity. The visiting backline in general failed to make an impact on the Stormers’ solid defence.
The hosts tightened it up after half-time, and when the Bulls impeded for the umpteenth time at the breakdown, De Wet Barry received his marching orders. Surprisingly, Burger told Grant to kick for posts as the Stormers tried to settle things down.
The Newlands’ faithful began to bay for blood, as B team or not, no big match between the Stormers and Bulls goes unforgotten. They were on their way to their first win over the Bulls since 2004, but it wasn’t enough, the fans wanted these Bulls calves slaughtered.
A series of substitutions served to slow the Stormers’ momentum on attack, but their defence held firm to keep the Bulls tryless until the 79th minute. The visitors battled to make inroads, and were undone by sloppy handling. Bakkies Botha weighed in with some big carries, but he was a man alone.
A piece of individual brilliance by Gio Aplon sparked a dying game to life in the 64th minute. Aplon chipped and regathered just on the Bulls’ side of halfway before feeding an unmarked Jaque Fourie. The try secured an unnecessary bonus point, as the win was all the Stormers needed to secure a home semi-final.
The game ended on a high note for the outgunned Bulls, with Ruan Snyman ghosting through after a sustained period on attack. This try was scored after Habana was sin-binned; the first yellow-card conceded by a Stormers player in 2010.
The Cape franchise will host the Waratahs next Saturday, and there’s little doubt that gears three to five will be required. This victory against the Bulls was comprehensive and required less of the uncompromising physicality we’ve come to expect from the Stormers on attack. At Newlands next week, a packed stadium should finally be treated to two teams going full tilt for a place in the final.
By Jon Cardinelli