CAPE TOWN – 'Thank goodness it’s over'.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the Newlands faithful are tempted to utter those four words thinking about the Stormers’ three-match tour to Australasia.
Because hey, a tour to the land of the Kiwis can never be expected to be easy and, well, because of the kind of tour the Cape side experienced.
The Stormers’ match against the Highlanders was certainly their best performance of the three, and that’s exactly the concerning part – the fact I’m describing a performance which was far from perfect with ‘best’ as an adjective.
But, to be fair, it was a better display to the ones we had to witness in Sydney and Christchurch. Good enough? No. Better? Certainly.
It wasn’t an incredibly tidy game - both teams at times made it look as if the match was being played on a rain-drenched pitch, and the Highlanders shouldn’t tap themselves on the shoulder to celebrate the win for too long either. But they were always in control.
Ahead of their 33-15 defeat in Dunedin – their 10th consecutive loss in New Zealand – Stormers coach Robbie Fleck said if they can manage to stay in the game until half-time, they could get a win.
And they managed to do so, but it’s what happened after half-time that quickly showed those aspirations of a win in New Zealand will have to be put back on the shelf for another day.
At 19-15 down, the Stormers were still very much in the game when it was time for the change-room chat.
Up until that point, they had scored two tries and missed a conversion and a penalty kick, while the hosts had scored three. They were definitely still in it.
And different from their case against the defending champions – when a putrid opening 20 made way for a spirited second half fight – the Stormers were flat when they walked back onto the field in Dunedin for the remaining half, after a first half that saw them enjoy a lot of territory and possession.
Whether it was fatigue – although Fleck has said on many occasions their conditioning is up there, a sense of complacency that crept in seeing they had achieved their goal of ‘staying in it ’til half-time’ or whatever other possibility, they looked different.
And you could see it in how slowly they sometimes got back up on their feet after contact and in the strolls they took to the lineout when the Highlanders’ line had already comfortably been formed.
But there were some positives. The Stormers looked decent with ball in hand, but they just couldn’t find or create the space to actually do something with that possession.
And they spent a great amount of time in opposition 22 – which should say a lot about their continuity, phase play and ball retention – but couldn’t convert their presence in the Highlanders’ red zone into points.
Or, it could also be yet another sign of the Stormers’ inability to finish and turn their time spent in opposition 22 into points – a problem I don’t think I need to go into much detail with.
There were also individuals who added a positive sprinkle, like debutant lock Salmaan Moerat – who impressed with his hard work and general eagerness to be involved after he came on as a replacement after Chris van Zyl’s head collided with Kobus van Dyk’s (a series of replacements followed after that).
Flyhalf Damian Willemse also constantly threatened the Highlanders and often beat the first defender with his quick feet.
His try - which he got after pouncing on a loose ball and sprinted from his own 22 - was simply superb.
Their defence out wide was poor and they were punished for it, with probably the best example thereof when Waisake Naholo raced down an open touchline and comfortable broke out of the three eager pairs of hands that desperately tried to rush in and cover the gaps out wide.
And, in the second half especially, the Stormers were continuously caught behind the gain line, while the increasing “WHOO-HOO!” celebrations from Aaron Smith behind his pack seemed to get under their skin as the pressure continued to build.
Then there were of course those lineouts - perhaps not as terrible as they’ve been in the first two games, but it was still a concern.
It’s safe to say the Stormers will have to put in a lot of work when they arrive in Cape Town and prepare for their date with the Blues.
Just like last year, they return home without a single win.
And something that can make this season’s tour qualify as being even worse than last year’s is the fact this year’s trip included a loss to a Waratahs side that boasted nothing special in terms of performance.
And while the Stormers’ performance in Dunedin was certainly not their worst, it needs to go better from here on.
And a good place to start would be at Newlands next week when they aim to prevent more Super Rugby blues.