Stormers strangle Highlanders

JON CARDINELLI watched another impressive defensive performance earn the Stormers an important 21-6 victory in Dunedin.

It’s got to the point where the Stormers’ imposing defence has invaded the collective mind of the opposition.

It was obvious from the outset that the Highlanders had formulated a special plan to fracture that renowned defensive line. Had they executed that game plan with more accuracy, or indeed varied their attack more, they may have succeeded where so many teams have failed.

As it was, they didn’t manage to cross the tryline for 80 minutes. Their ploys to grubber through the defence or launch the high ball on a short Stormers back three proved unsuccessful, as each time the visitors managed to scramble back and secure possession.

The Highlanders produced another massive effort at the breakdown, but couldn’t make their turnovers count. The Stormers were far better with ball in hand than in previous matches, although it was from the turnover where they proved to be the most clinical.

Two first-half opportunities culminated in two tries, as the backline showed what it’s capable of when the players combine successfully. The first try was the product of pure pressure, the power of the Stormers forwards forcing the ball to squirt out on the Highlanders’ side of the ruck. Jean de Villiers hacked the ball ahead, and a second touch with the boot set up a foot race between Gio Aplon and the cover defence.

The second try was set up and scored by fullback Joe Pietersen, who had one of his best games in a Stormers jersey. Another failed attempt to disrupt the Stormers defence, this time via a Chris Noakes chip kick, handed the visitors possession 10 metres from their own tryline. Pietersen collected the ball and launched the counter-attack, and then featured two more times in the build-up to the try. A great offload by Aplon was collected by the Stormers No 15 who then showed the extent of skills by chipping and regathering for a spectacular finish.

It was during this period where the Highlanders botched numerous chances. They spilled too much ball in contact, and while they failed to breach the Stormers defence, their good work at the breakdown didn’t garner reward.

Noakes goaled two penalties in the first half, but also sent two attempts wide. Looking back, it was a crucial stage of the game, and so the Highlanders will surely regret these misses.

While it wasn’t the most dominant or clinical performance, special mention should go to the Stormers forwards. On the back of a bruising encounter with the Bulls, and after a tiring journey to New Zealand, they maintained their intensity throughout.

The breakdown was a mess and the kickoffs were not great, but they will take confidence from the fact that they went to Dunedin and beat one of the better packs in the competition.

Trailing 15-6 with 50 minutes to play, and with a stonewall in front of them, an element of desperation crept into the Highlanders’ game. They effected some terrific turnovers but too often kicked possession away or forced the pass. They managed to make a few linebreaks but once again, the scrambling defence of the Stormers killed the hosts’ momentum.

Referee Chris Pollock eventually lost his patience with the Stormers forwards, who began to concede penalty after penalty at the breakdown. He yellow-carded hooker Tiaan Liebenberg in the 66th minute, and this looked to be the break the Highlanders needed to initiate a comeback.

They threw everything they had at the Stormers during that period, but again failed to show the accuracy or the decisiveness to trouble the visitors’ defence. The Cape pack was massive in the dying stages, hitting Highlanders ball-carriers backwards and snaffling some important turnovers.

In the end, it was the Stormers, through Peter Grant, that had the final say with a penalty. Tamati Ellison looked to have crossed the line in the last minute, but a video replay showed that a desperate tackle attempt by Pietersen had forced him into touch.

The result sees the Stormers maintaining their winning record, but more importantly they have started their Australasian tour with a victory.

It doesn’t get any easier with trips to Christchurch and Brisbane scheduled for the next two weeks, but having beaten the Bulls and Highlanders, the Stormers will have every reason to feel confident.