The Stormers’ victory over the Sharks at Newlands last night was equally pleasing and frustrating.
It was pleasing to see them run in three tries to one, and frustrating because their season could very well have run a very different course had they just managed to produce more outings like this.
While Robbie Fleck’s team are out of the running for a spot in the play-offs, the Sharks will have to rely on a big performance against the Jaguares next week for a chance of making it into the top eight to bear fruit.
It would be a bit naive to say that it was a complete performance by the Stormers, though, but it was a good one. Their game management was good, they put the Sharks under pressure and what they did on attack was impressive, and they were rewarded with three stunning tries.
The Sharks, on the other hand, made way too many mistakes and let a number of opportunities go. The Stormers have of course been dealt a lot of injury blows this season, and they weren’t able to escape it for their last match either.
They had to make a late change and bring Josh Stander – played in only his second Super Rugby game – into the starting line-up as Jean-Luc du Plessis was a late withdrawal due to a hip injury.
While he failed to find touch with his clearance kicks a few times, the touches Stander added on attack, like his kick-passes and distribution, made him a decent addition on the day.
The Stormers showed good rhythm on attack in the opening minutes, but it was the Sharks who got on the scoreboard first after flyhlaf Robert du Preez kicked a penalty after a knock-on by the Stormers.
The Stormers responsed through inside centre Damian de Allende, who showed good vision, hit the gap and ran a stunning line after Stander did well after a ruck to take the ball up flat before sending a quick outside pass. And De Allende’s offload to Man-of-the-Match Cobus Wiese, who did well to run up in support, put him away for a stunning converted try.
The Sharks pointed to the posts whenever they had the chance, and in the 10th minute Du Preez made no mistake to take his team to within one point of the hosts, and another accurate strike in the first quarter took the score to 7-9.
As good as the Stormers looked in the opening few minutes, it was the Sharks who were in control from there on as they managed to turn their territorial advantage into points.
The Sharks’ defence was superb and looked solid when the Stormers desperately tried to get over the try line at the half-hour mark. And as good as the visitors’ defensive effort was, some good decision-making by the Stormers saw them swing a pass wide for outside centre EW Viljoen to force his way over for a converted try.
However, as the clock ticked on and the Stormers continued to show their hunger for the try line, the missed tackles started creeping in from the men in black, while they also seemed to lack physical grunt.
For the Stormers a good start was always going to be important. Fullback Dillyn Leyds – who played in his 50th Super Rugby game – reminded the crowd just how potent he is on the counter attack when he exploited a clearance blunder by the Sharks. The Springbok got the ball, before spotting the space and swerving past a number of defenders before he gave a clever offload to Sikhumbuzo Notshe, who sent a darting outside ball to wing Raymond Rhule, who made sure they finished off a top spell of play.
Before half time, Stander, who had slotted all three his conversions, sent the penalty kick that would have given the Stormers a 15-point lead just wide to bring down the curtain on an entertaining first half, although it wasn’t without its mistakes.
The second half introduced an energised Sharks team, and beautiful handling by Du Preez and fullback Curwin Bosch in addition to sucking in the Stormers defenders saw Kobus van Wyk run in a converted try against his former teammates.
Both sides made use of their bench early and the impact of Springbok props Steven Kitshoff and Wilco Louw could be seen in the scrums. And while their first scrummaging performance showed their quality as they produced a massive shove, there was also good competition in midfield, and it was particularly pleasing to see De Allende add a few good moments to a match that quickly turned into a high-tempo one. The Sharks’ desperation to qualify and the Stormers’ eagerness to end on a high was definitely evident.
But one notable negative was the number of injury concerns that arose, particularly to the Springbok players.
S’bu Nkosi, Thomas du Toit, Dan du Preez and De Allende all had to go off with injuries.
In the last 20, Stander slotted a penalty that gave the Stormers an eight-point lead, and in the 70th minute, Du Preez – who had a perfect kicking record up until then – hit the posts with the kick that would have taken them to within five points of the Stormers.
Although each team had a try disallowed earlier in the contest, it was Lukhanyo Am’s no-try that the Sharks would have felt the most. In the 75th minute, after doing well to beat the Stormers’defence on the outside, Am lost the ball forward as he stretched out for the grounding, while Leyds chased him down and put in a desperate tackle.
A penalty kick from right in front the posts by Stander in the 79th minute made sure that the Sharks had no chance of catching up, and while that performance by the Stormers was a little too late, they managed to achieve their goal of ending on a positve note.