Cape Town – Stormers coach John Dobson said that he was “very proud of the character” shown by his team to defend for their lives in closing out a memorable 23-19 victory over the Bulls at a packed Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
The defending champions of the United Rugby Championship hit back from 12-3 down in the first half to work their way into a 20-12 lead, and then had to withstand a late onslaught from Jake White’s outfit in the final thrilling minutes in front of a boisterous 41 000-plus crowd in Pretoria.
The Bulls had two big chances to avoid a fifth loss in a row to the Capetonians after the hooter had sounded, but were denied by a gritty Stormers defence. Reserve lock Ruben van Heerden made the final turnover on the ground and kicked the ball out himself to end a titanic battle.
“Brannas (captain Deon Fourie) and I said the same thing very quickly: just that we were very proud of them – very proud of the character. We knew the level of motivation for this game, and knew that the first 20 to 30 minutes would be tough,” Dobson said on Saturday night.
“They dominated the territory for most of that half, and we conceded too many penalties as well. They won that contestable battle, and I thought Ruan Nortje was outstanding…
“Deon just couldn’t get the ball down (as he was held up over the line by Bulls flank Marco van Staden), and that could have taken us away. But the way we stayed in that fight, got into a lead at halftime and then started that second half was magic. And then the character at the end… That is just what this team is about, what happened in those last 10 minutes – I’m so proud of them.”
Skipper Fourie produced yet another outstanding display as he halted the Bulls’ momentum on numerous occasions with critical turnovers and breakdown penalties, and he also praised his teammates for fighting back from 12-3 down.
“It was just the silly mistakes, and we didn’t get into their half once. We just spoke about clamping down on the silly mistakes, keep it to the basics, and let’s just play and get into their half,” the Stormers No 6 said.
“As soon as we got into their half and 22, we walked away with points, which turned things around. But we talked about it all week – they would be up after the first 20 minutes, because it’s in front of their home crowd and they’ve got a lot to play for.
“We just needed to get into the fight, and like last year and this year, we always play for 80 minutes, so credit to the team.”
The Bulls seemed to be in control after four Chris Smith penalties put them nine points ahead after 25 minutes.
But Stormers No 8 Marcel Theunissen finished off on the left from a superb long pass from scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, and a second Manie Libbok penalty put the visitors 13-12 up at halftime.
Teenage wing Suleiman Hartzenberg sparked the second try after the break that was dotted down by replacement loose forward Junior Pokomela, and despite a Sbu Nkosi touchdown with 15 minutes to go, Libbok’s late drop goal and an heroic defensive effort secured the victory.
“We did everything that we shouldn’t have done (in the first quarter) – we gave away a couple of penalties, Seabelo (Senatla) took the guy in the air, and then we went offside, which was two unforced penalties,” Dobson said.
“At 12-3 down, we had a scrum down in the right-hand corner, and Brokkie got us a penalty. But we were under the pump there, and if we had gone 19-3 there…
“It wasn’t a tactical thing that turned it around. We were losing the contestable battle…
“(Defence coach) Norman’s (Laker) got a system, and that’s certainly not our system, where Ruben and Sazi got turnovers! But I think we were defending so well – it was not as if kick-space was a threat – so we could probably put in an extra player in the line, and it paid off for us.
“There was just like this desperation of wanting to defend to win. We defended excellently.
“I just want to say that I thought Ruben van Heerden was an immense player… we are very lucky to have him. But wow – for him to kick the last ball out here at Loftus is special!”
Bulls 19 – Try: Sbu Nkosi. Conversion: Morné Steyn (1). Penalties: Chris Smith (4).
Stormers 23 – Tries: Marcel Theunissen, Junior Pokomela. Conversions: Manie Libbok (2). Penalties: Libbok (2). Drop goal: Libbok (1)