JON CARDINELLI reports on a superior display of physicality and resolve that earned the Stormers a rare 23-13 win over the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.
The result marks the Stormers’ first win at the Bulls stronghold since 2003, and is hugely significant in the context of the current campaign. The Cape team has stuttered to wins over the lowly Lions, Cheetahs and Highlanders, and while their attack was far from polished in Pretoria, their intensity and courage was a cut above that of the opposition.
Everybody expected a demolition derby, and both teams gave the blood-hungry patrons plenty to cheer. The Stormers cannon-balled into the contact situations, with rookie enforcer Rynhardt Elstadt going toe-to-toe with Bakkies Botha. Even without the abrasive Schalk Burger, the Stormers loose trio outmuscled their Bulls counterparts.
Francois Louw effected some great steals on the deck, his anticipation and aggression disrupting the Bulls’ attacking flow. The Stormers were hungrier at the collisions, but they also displayed a controlled aggression that was a hallmark of their game in 2010. They adapted to referee Keith Brown, and forced the Bulls onto the back foot.
The Bulls are usually so good at implementing their simple but brutal tactics, but on this occasion, they had no answer to the Stormers’ approach. It was a day when the bullies got bullied. It was also a day that showed just how far some of the Springbok regulars have fallen in the space of a few months.
Playing behind a losing pack, Fourie Du Preez battled to pressure the Stormers with any telling consistency. Pierre Spies was once again disappointing with ball in hand, and Morne Steyn was a non-factor on attack and a speedbump on defence. The Bok flyhalf also missed three goal-attempts, and was outplayed by his opposite number in every facet.
Peter Grant missed a couple from right in front, but managed to goal some long distance beauties. The Stormers backline showed some neat attacking touches, and although they failed to finish some incisive breaks, they have improved since their earlier offerings at Newlands.
The performance of Bryan Habana was reflective of the Stormers’ performance at large. Habana has copped a lot of criticism of late for his high-error rate and impotent attacking efforts, and he continued to flounder in the first half of this contest. It was a Habana gaffe that led to Bjorn Basson’s try.
The Stormers No 11 did all the hard work to get back and cover Basson’s chip, but then spilled the ball over the tryline and handed the Bulls’ new flyer a gift five-pointer. But it was Habana who had the last laugh, scoring a try late in the second half.
Replacement centre Juan de Jongh ripped the ball off the Bulls and Dewaldt Duvenage spotted the space behind Basson. The Stormers scrumhalf delivered a beautiful tactical probe, and while Basson looked to have it covered, Habana pounced at the critical moment. It was a spectacular finish for the Stormers and Habana himself, and I dare say it could galvanise both the player and his team to score more in the weeks to come.
The win was also down to the Stormers’ fantastic defence. While they’ve managed to keep teams quiet in the first three rounds, they’ve lacked that hard defensive edge that made them so successful in 2010. That abrasive quality was evident at Loftus, however, and won them the match.
Coach Allister Coetzee has spoken about the resolve of this team, and he will continue to wax lyrical about the Stormers’ mental attitude after this showing at Loftus. Grant missed a couple of kicks in the second half that would have confirmed the result, but the team remained composed in the final quarter, maintaining their discipline and intensity to close out the match.
There’s little doubt this win will go down as one of the best in the Stormers’ 14-year history, and it’s a result that announces them as serious contenders for that top spot in the South African conference. While there are areas that need sharpening, they’ve won four from four, a haul that includes the scalp of the incumbent champions.