JON CARDINELLI reports on a dire contest at Newlands that was eventually won 27-17 by the Stormers.
This clanger had all the elements of a low-level Currie Cup scrap. The handling skills on display were shockingly bad, and the ball security at the breakdown even more so. Discipline was an afterthought, decision-making poor, and any sort of team synergy and continuity sadly unapparent.
The poor quality of performance, however, was not entirely unexpected. The Stormers had been forced to make changes during the week, and were further depleted when Joe Pietersen and Bryan Habana pulled out on Saturday morning due to flu. The Lions went into this game without their head coach as well as two of their frontline props.
Even so, it was an unforgivable mistake-fest, not the kind of rugby you’d expect in a competition that acts as the feeder to the international game. Elton Jantjies provided a sign of things to come when his kickoff didn’t go the 10 metres, and his team-mates gave an early indicator of their ‘domkrag’ tactics when they obliged with an early breakdown penalty.
The Lions came into this match ranked 15th on the log, and they certainly lived up to that billing as the worst team in the competition. There was no purpose in their performance, no appreciation for territory or possession. When Jantjies did kick, he kicked poorly. And when the Lions forwards did play the team into good field positions, they often conceded a breakdown penalty or turnover. It was momentum-killing stuff, and agonising to watch.
What made it agonising for the neutral was that the Stormers were also nowhere near their best. They did well to bank early points, Peter Grant kicking a penalty goal and Gio Aplon scoring after a good build up. But the first try of the game was a rare example of clinical finishing, as the Stormers not only botched further opportunities, but also made some questionable tactical decisions.
Twice they turned down kickable penalties, and in both of those instances they surrendered possession after winning the ensuing lineout. The Lions remained competitive, but they struggled to make the Stormers pay for their mistakes. No sooner had they denied the Stormers and made a turnover when they conceded a turnover of their own.
The Stormers’ struggles for synergy were exacerbated when Danie Poolman was injured and the backline was forced to reshuffle. In another questionable decision by the brain trust, Jean de Villiers was moved to the wing and reserve back Marcel Brache to centre. It removed the Stormers captain from that decision-making position in midfield, and the hosts were less organised as a result.
De Villiers’s opposite number Josh Strauss would score in the 48th minute to bring the Lions right back into the contest, and this time Jantjies was on target. The manner in which Strauss shrugged off multiple Stormers defenders was a credit to the man’s strength, but it was also an embarrassing moment for the hosts. For a side with such a strong defensive reputation, it was a real lowlight.
As the game drew to its conclusion, the Stormers had several opportunities to cross the Lions’ tryline. They butchered a couple, but also made two count, reserve loose forward Jebb Sinclair crashing over in the corner and wing Gerhard van den Heever beating his defender in a one-on-one situation.
The Lions finished the match strongly, scoring through Franco van der Merwe. It only served to lend the scoreline a more respectable look.
Regardless of the poor showing, the Stormers will be pleased with the result. Given their significant losses to injury and illness, it was no mean feat, and they remain on course for a home semi-final.