RYAN VREDE reports on a breathtaking spectacle in which an impossibly brilliant defensive effort saw the Stormers beat the Bulls 19-15.
This had it all. Abrasive phase play? Numerous examples. Brutal collisions? There were plenty. Foul-mouthed exhortations to achieve a level of performance that transcends the expected? Check. An underdog that refused to accept that billing. You bet ya. This was a derby of epic proportions, one befitting a match of this importance. And ultimately the Stormers took Loftus off the back of one of the great defensive performances.
When viewed in the context of their dire situation with injuries to key players, the importance of the result, the opposition, the venue, and having a man yellow carded, the Stormers’ performance was among the best and bravest they have produced in the history of Super Rugby.
The Bulls dominated possession and territory and that they scored just one try is a credit to the Stormers’ defensive structure and the accuracy of their execution within that structure. The Bulls needed to play with a high tempo to seriously trouble them, but their ability to do so was stifled by uncompromising hits at the gainline and a rabid breakdown contest.
However, the Cape side’s attack struggled and undermined their cause yet again. Credit to the Bulls, who themselves produced a tackle fight of appreciable strength and accuracy. The Stormers shelved their renowned kicking game in favour of ball-in-hand attack but their surges were often forced to go lateral as a pink wall advanced at them with pace and cohesion. Often the Stormers played well behind the advantage line and seldom threatened. There was a throwback moment from Bryan Habana in the 20th minute where the winger broke and made 40m. But that moment was birthed from a broken field situation. Their general play lacked innovation and precision, while the scrums were little more than adequate and lineouts an absolute shambles. But when it mattered they delivered, Habana, once a beloved son of Loftus, downing his former team-mates.
Morne Steyn and Peter Grant traded penalties before the Bulls crossed the whitewash, controversially so, as it appeared that Pierre Spies had grounded the ball on Deon Carstens’ boot. Steyn missed the conversion but banked three points shortly thereafter. Grant landed a penalty of his own just before the break to leave his side trialling 11-9.
Defence dominated threafter, and with neither side able to get go-forward and the lines able to fan out, the attacking play was laboured and largely impotent.
Stormers prop Frans Malherbe complicated an already arduous task when he got himself sin-binned for a tip-tackle with a quarter of the game to play. But the Stormers redoubled their efforts and scored the only points in Malherbe’s absence, Grant sinking a penalty to make it a two-point game.
Then the play that changed the game. The Stormers seemed to be venturing down another attacking dead-end when Quin Roux threw a speculative pass wide to Siya Kolisi. But JJ Engelbrecht was hesitant in closing the flanker down, allowing him to cut through a hole and pick Habana out with the most perfectly timed pass. It topped a masterclass from Kolisi. At only 20, his future is very, very bright.
The Bulls launched an almighty late assault but the Stormers held all the cards. It was the Stormers’ primary strength against a desperate and disjointed Bulls attack. They never looked like folding.
What a match.