Stormers seal conference title

JON CARDINELLI watched the Stormers beat the Cheetahs 13-6 to retain the South African title and edge closer towards that all-important home semi-final berth.

It was a missed opportunity if you consider that five log points would have catapulted the Stormers to the top of the overall log. But on a day where the rain was bucketing down in Bloemfontein and conditions made handling and running difficult, four log points should be viewed as more than adequate.

The performance will be scrutinised and there are areas of concern. What is more important than the quality of performance, however, is that this Stormers side has maintained its winning momentum. They’ve clinched the South African conference and thus ensured a top-three finish in the Super Rugby league.

Prior to this fixture, the Stormers hadn’t picked up a four-try bonus point. And yet, there was good reason to believe that a trip to Bloemfontein would yield maximum log points.

The Cheetahs play an expansive game and are susceptible on turnover ball. With the Stormers boasting a formidable defence, they were expected to force the attack-minded Cheetahs into errors and use those mistakes to create try-scoring chances.

But the weather put paid to that notion, as the Cheetahs adjusted their tactics right from kickoff. The Stormers persisted with their territorial game plan right from the outset, but so did the Cheetahs. Even when they were deep in the Stormers’ half, the Cheetahs halfbacks saw fit to test the opposition back three with a series of garryowens.

The Stormers spilled their fair share of high balls, but unfortunately for the Cheetahs, the hosts could not make these turnovers count. In a game where both sides were terribly inconsistent, the one constant was the Stormers defence. The Cape side may have erred at times, but they managed to keep the Cheetahs from scoring a try.

The Stormers weren’t effective at the collisions, and generally lacked patience on attack. The conditions weren’t conducive to flinging the ball wide, and yet this was how the Stormers squandered much of their possession.

They also blew a couple of attacking chances through hooker Deon Fourie, who obviously struggled to control the slippery ball when feeding the lineout. But when they did manage to win ball at this set piece, they looked dangerous, and the rolling maul was used effectively.

While they made inroads into the Cheetahs’ defence via the rolling maul, they failed to use this platform to score tries. The Cheetahs defence did its best to spoil and stifle, but more composure from the Stormers may have resulted in more rewards on the scoreboard.

Referee Marius Jonker eventually lost his patience with ill-disciplined Cheetahs, and sent fullback Willie le Roux to the sin bin in the 45th minute. This yellow card followed a series of Cheetahs offences in their own 22m area. It was also a period where the Stormers turned down kickable penalties and went for the try.

But the Stormers lacked the penetration to punish the Cheetahs, and captain Jean de Villiers eventually pointed towards the posts when his team was awarded their next penalty. They would score a try in the 54th minute through Gio Aplon, a score that was down to Peter Grant’s superb vision and execution.

The flyhalf realised that Le Roux was still in the sin bin and chipped into space, and Aplon raced through to collect the ball on the bounce. The ensuing conversion meant that the Stormers had scored 10 points while Le Roux was off the park.

But these moments of execution were far too rare. It wasn’t wrong to kick for territory in a match afflicted by such weather, but the accuracy of those kicks left a lot to be desired.

The handling in contact was poor, which was to be expected in such conditions. What was less expected was the poor breakdown work by either team. Turnovers were commonplace, and so neither team managed to build an attack of substance.

The Stormers attempted to play in Cheetahs territory in the final minutes, but a series of bad kicks merely handed the hosts possession. The Cheetahs had their chances to win the game in the second half, or at least draw in the final minute.

They won a penalty and booted it to touch, but lost possession at the lineout when Andries Bekker soared to make a potentially game-saving steal.

The Stormers have one remaining fixture before the play-offs, and will want to use the game against the Rebels to generate some momentum. More importantly, they will want to win that match to guarantee themselves a home semi-final.