Game changer: Bernard Foley of the Waratahs and Leolin Zas of the Stormers compete for the ball in the air at Newlands. Zas was red-carded for the challenge and the 14-man Stormers went down 32-30. Picture: Chris Ricco, BackpagePix

It was difficult not to feel sorry for Stormers coach Robbie Fleck and co-captain Juan de Jongh when they came out to face the media after the 32-30 defeat to the Waratahs at Newlands on Saturday night.

The Stormers produced their best performance of the season, but just couldn’t win the game. Yes, Leolin Zas’ controversial red card had a massive bearing on the result, but even with 14 men they played some great rugby to stay in the game until the final whistle.

There was this amazing 25 minutes of play in the first half when the Stormers had the ball on the piece of string and actually outshone one of the best back divisions in the tournament.

Their option-tacking was superb, their offloading outrageous. They ran into space, and their tactical kicking was magnificent. The pack was brutal, yet sublime in their execution, while the backs were running hard and straight. Newlands was buzzing with excitement, as Fleck’s vision began to unfold in front of the 25 000 souls who braved the cold.

The Stormers’ loose trio were also all over the place, while locks Rynhardt Elstadt and Pieter-Steph du Toit bullied and then dazzled with some superb carrying and offloading. Two fine tries for Schalk Burger and Du Toit came from that effort.

Then there was that try they scored to retake the lead with five minutes to play. The Stormers, with 14 men, took basically their only chance of the last quarter of with power, patience and panache.

Again, Newlands took off with excitement when Du Toit, who is slowly becoming one of the darlings of this grand old stadium, went over for his second try.

“There was some really great rugby from us. The passes started to stick and it was something we certainly focused on and talked about in the week. It’s certainly coming (along nicely),” Fleck said after the match.

But, inbetween those moments of brilliance, there were a few “soft moments” as Fleck likes to call them. Like flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis’ two shots at goal that went wide right in front of the posts, and his failed touch finder and penalty at the breakdown that led to Israel Folau’s try just before halftime.

Then there was Damian de Allende’s two missed tackles on Bernard Foley and Folau, from set-pieces that led two tries for the mercurial Kurley Beale and Folau.

When the Stormers were hanging on with 14 men, and it was better to keep the ball rather then let the dangerous Waratahs come at them, replacement scrumhalf Louis Schreuder kicked a ball straight down Folau throat, while Schreuder also failed to clear the ball at the base of the last scrum of the match with the Stormers pack under pressure.

Both those incidents led to tries for the Waratahs, which ultimately cost the Stormers the game.

But even so, the Stormers could have still won the match. Fleck knew it as well.

“We are all gutted and disappointed because we lost. Last week I was disappointed because we didn’t play our best rugby, but this week it’s because we were really good, but we lost,” Fleck said.

“Two soft moments on defence let them back in the game. We certainly were the dominant side, but we let them back in and that certainly got their tails up.

“It was a dominant performance in that first half, and I like to think that we played well enough in the second to win it. Even though we had those soft moments, the team still rallied together and played some very good rugby.”

The Stormers are certainly not the finished product yet, because, while they are playing an exciting brand of rugby, they still need to read the game a bit better.

The courage they showed in that second half with only 14 men on the park was good, but their game management was not, especially in terms of slowing the game down and not letting the visitors get their hands on the ball.

But it’s probably all about the experience and learning from their mistakes. This week they will certainly have time to talk about it, because they have the weekend off before taking on the Sunwolves in Singapore the weekend after.

“The two soft moments in the first half and red card does contribute to us being under the pressure. The character we showed, the fight, and the ability to score a try like that under pressure, with only 14 men, it just shows that we are on the right track,” Fleck said.

“We are putting some of the big names in the competition under serious pressure, and I felt that, regardless of us playing with 14 men, we probably should have come out with the win at the end of the day.”

The Stormers should have been victorious on Saturday night, but this performance and the lessons learnt from their “soft moments”, at this stage of their rebuilding phase, were maybe more important than the win. - Cape Times