The Stormers jumped into the thick of the race for a Super 14 semi-final on Saturday with a superb 20-12 win over the Hurricanes in Cape Town.
Having worn down their opposition with some gritty defence, with the loose trio especially prominent around the breakdown, Schalk Brits popped up with half an hour remaining to finish off one of the tries of the tournament and seal the win.
It was a fascinating game! The Stormers spent much of it defending, by both hook and the occasional hook, but they took their opportunities clinically. The Hurricanes will wonder how, having enjoyed 70 per cent possession and 60 per cent territory in the second half, they did not manage to score more than twice.
There were exceptional performances all over the pitch, from both teams. The Stormers forwards were collectively magnificent, with Andries Bekker ruling the line-outs, Luke Watson tearing balls for his team in the loose, and the scrum putting their opponents under permanent pressure. In the backs, Jean de Villiers recorded a monstrous tackle count, and Sireli Naqelevuki continued to impress.
But for the visitors, even in defeat, there were plusses too. Ma'a Nonu never once failed to break the gain line, and young Zac Guildford, the youngest ever Hurricane indicated a bright future ahead of him with his speed and skill. Up front, Andrew Hore once again put his hand up for the All Black number two jersey and Jeremy Thrush was superb in the loose. It was two teams full of commitment, at the top of their game, head to head. It was compelling for every minute.
Another stat worth noting is the first half set pieces. Not one set piece was lost against the head or throw in the first half, meaning it was the team playing the purest rugby and controlling the ball the best that would come out on top.
The Stormers' 10-0 half-time lead was thus a measure of their game-play superiority in some key areas. The contest and speed at and to the breakdown counted for much, and resulted in a free-kick count of 8-5 in the home team's favour. There was also a 4-0 penalty count as the Hurricanes' frustration grew. Peter Grant kicked the first of the four after 24 minutes to open the scoring, but there could have been three tries by then.
Early on, Enrico Januarie's chip was not claimed by any Hurricane. Instead Sireli Naqelevuki took the ball and screamed up to within 5m of the Stormers line until he was tackled, and his support players went over the top.
After 12 minutes, Piri Weepu finished off some fancy handling by his team-mates by chipping the ball into the danger zone, but Watson did just enough to put him off, forcing him to knock on instead of gather.
Not long before Grant did land the penalty, the Stormers pack drove a maul some 20 metres forward, and the spell of ensuing pressure culminated in Tonderai Chavhanga chipping and chasing himself, with the ball just running dead.
That was how it went. The Stormers forwards kept up their pressure, spoiling the fluidity of the Hurricanes moves. The Hurricanes backs looked to move at many moments, but without the ball, they looked vulnerable.
It was that vulnerability, and the pressure that comes from it, which proved to be the game-breaker. Referee James Leckie, who was not shy of blowing a quick whistle if he thought it would be a deterrent, penalised the Hurricanes for a string of offences, also issuing a string of warnings which proved to be rather empty. But after two penalties had been booted to touch in the corner, five phases of forward driving finally yielded a try, delivered by the long arm of Andries Bekker. Grant converted, and the half-time whistle went two minutes later.
Grant made it 13-0 within two minutes of the restart with Rodney So'oialo - who did not have his finest match - penalised for not rolling away.
The Hurricanes upped their game, especially up front. THeir forward pushed harder, and kept the ball at the rucks. Where Luke Watson had snouted up all sorts of truffles from the bottom of rucks in the first half, all he merged with in the second was a dirty nose. Hosea Gear then enjoyed a clean break up the middle, and the resultant wide ball found prop Neemia Tialata on the wing.
Then came a moment of contention for the Hurricanes. Tialata was bundled into touch by a no-arm tackle from Naqelevuki. At only five metres out, and with the defence already stretched thin, there was a case for a penalty try. INstead there was only a penalty, and from the drive, So'oialo lost the ball in contact and the chance went begging.
Three minutes later, the game appeared up. Naqelevuki broke from his own 22, and chipped. Watson gave chase - just as well, for Naqelevuki was tackled late. He caught the ball, and offloaded magnificently to Bekker, who found Watson once more before the number eight got it to Schalk Brits on the burst, and the hooker dived triumphantly over.
Grant's conversion made it 20-0, but the Hurricanes decided that was enough of a head start. Gear rounded off a backs move on the right, and Gopperth made no mistake with the conversion.
After Zac Guildford's Lighting burst down the left, the Hurricanes forwards showcased their new-found discipline, taking the ball through 16 phases before Conrad Smith spun out of a double tackle and plunged down in-goal.
Had Gopperth landed that conversion to bring the visitors to within a score, you sensed they might have completed the comeback. Instead the kick sailed left, and there was a whiff of too much desperation about the rest of their play. Guildford, Nonu, and Masoe all enjoyed clean breaks, but the phases were forced once too often, and the Stormers defence held firm.
Man of the match: Several contenders put their hands up, but Luke Watson's sterling work in the breakdowns ensured that while the Hurricanes enjoyed lots of ball, they were rarely able to use it cleanly and quickly. That, plus his role in the try, earns him this accolade.
Moment of the match: The Stormers' second try. Champagne!
Villain of the match: None - a really good game of rugby.
For the Stormers:
Tries: Bekker, Brits
Cons: Grant 2
Pens: Grant 2
For the Hurricanes:
Tries: Gear, Smith
Stormers: 15 Conrad Jantjes, 14 Tonderai Chavhanga, 13 Gcobani Bobo, 12 Jean De Villiers (c), 11 Sireli Naqelevuki, 10 Peter Grant, 9 Ricky Januarie, 8 Luke Watson, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Schalk Burger, 5 Andries Bekker, 4 Adriaan Fondse, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 JD Moller.
Replacements: 16 Tiaan Liebenberg, 17 Brok Harris, 18 Ross Skeate, 19 Robbie Diack, 20 Bolla Conradie, 21 Tony Brown, 22 Gio Aplon
Hurricanes: 15 Cory Jane, 14 Hosea Gear, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Shannon Paku, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Rodney So'oialo (c), 7 Chris Masoe, 6 Jerry Collins, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 John Schwalger.
Replacements: 16 Hikawera Elliot, 17 Tim Fairbrother, 18 Bernie Upton, 19 Scott Waldrom, 20 Willie Ripia, 21 Tane Tu'ipulotu, 22 Zac Guildford.
Referee: James Leckie (Australia)
Touch judges: Ian Smith (Australia), JC Fortuin (South Africa)
Television match official: Shaun Veldsman (South Africa)