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Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Stormers: Old doubts swirl
Cape Town – Both of the finalists in last year’s Super 14 seem strangely hell-bent on losing early games in the revamped Super Rugby ... somehow, they also aren’t succeeding.
The Bulls have now squeezed out consecutive nail-biters against the Lions and Cheetahs, while on Saturday night the runners-up of 2010, the Stormers, extended the trend in their belated opener by breaking Johannesburg hearts all over again in a 19-16 bone-cruncher at Newlands.
So once again the vastly improved Lions had to settle for a losing bonus point after an enthralling yet also sometimes ragged and chaotic contest.
Franco van der Merwe’s troops may lack some truly stellar names but spirit pumps through their veins and even after the Stormers notched their lone, game-turning try from a hallmark maul off a lineout in the 75th minute, they refused to raise any white flag.
Indeed, the most captivating passage of play in the entire match came just before and then for some four minutes or so after the siren as they rumbled and rumbled and rumbled from a daunting position near their own try-line to transfer play dramatically into the home quarter before umpteen phases came to no reward.
The ball was eventually gratefully scrambled out of play as SuperSport commentator Matthew Pearce so rightly noted: “That fly-hack (into touch) by Conrad Jantjes will go down as one of the most important of his career.”
Uncompromising Lions coach John Mitchell had reiterated in the press before the game that he isn’t interested in gutsy defeats for his charges, but he will also know deep down that the Stormers, missing their injured captain Schalk Burger for the entire second half, showed strong “BMT” in upping their continuity and intensity levels at a crucial juncture to steal the spoils from under the Highvelders’ noses.
Earlier, there had been generous passages of play in which many long-suffering Newlands supporters would have shifted uncomfortably in their seats and begun to wonder whether an old Achilles’ heel – an inability of a Stormers or Western Province tight five to establish a consistent foothold – was back to plague the cause in 2011.
That may yet prove to be the case, because the hosts had “issues” in the scrums, where Stuart Dickinson often penalised loosehead prop CJ van der Linde. (Isn’t the burly Springbok better deployed at his more familiar No 3?)
And Deon Fourie, the second-choice Stormers hooker who must carry Tiaan Liebenberg’s burden for several more weeks whilst the senior man recuperates, didn’t help at lineout time by struggling to gel with key jumpers like Andries Bekker.
At least Rynhardt Elstadt, one of several young guns being blooded at this level, showed commendable fire and energy as Bekker’s lock partner, even if this endeavour was evident more in an open play context.
Perhaps there was great significance, too, in the Stormers looking unusually disorganised in the first half, when the high tempo and ferocity of the Lions’ onslaught seemed to catch them off-guard, and then gradually establishing a belated foothold in the second 40 minutes.
As backline coach Robbie Fleck reminded on television during the interval: “It’s tough having a bye on the first weekend.”
The Stormers also so nearly paid a heavy price, I fancy, for not really having put out a genuine A-team at any stage during their pre-season activity -- though with some pretty “creative” selections for this opener it is a little hard to fathom precisely what their truest A-side actually is at present.
On the plus side, Peter Grant came off the bench for some 20 important minutes at flyhalf and hardly looked a man coated in rust from his Japanese sojourn, so some assuring “seniority” will in all likelihood return to a key channel when the Cheetahs visit Newlands next weekend.
Mind you, hot-and-cold debutant Gary van Aswegen showed some decent touches before Grant’s entry to proceedings, including a surprising zest for crunching defence.
Where to now for the Lions, clearly busy restoring some pride to their badge yet sitting on a nought-from-two record in the SA conference?
They threw the kitchen sink at both the Bulls and Stormers – bearded flank Josh Strauss was a revelation from first whistle to last in the latest encounter – and there must be some danger that they will thus be vulnerable to defeat again when they play the Blues in a Friday-nighter, which curbs their recovery time a bit.
But there is real hope nevertheless for a brighter future, isn’t there?