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    Stormers erase doubts

    2012-04-02 10:47

    Gavin Rich

    Johannesburg - There may be other aspects of their game that leave something to be desired, but their win over the Bulls in a pulsating Super Rugby derby erased any lingering doubts about the awesome potential of the Stormers’ young pack.

    The Cape team left for New Zealand on Sunday and coach Allister Coetzee and skipper Jean de Villiers were taking the wise approach by keeping their feet firmly on the ground. It gets tougher for them from here. They face the inform Highlanders at the start of their tour in Dunedin on Saturday before travelling to play the Crusaders in Christchurch, a venue where a South African team has not won for more than a decade. And the Reds should be heading back to full-strength by the time the Stormers play them in Brisbane.

    But for now they thoroughly deserve their top position on both the overall log and on the South African conference table. Their forwards, who dominated the Bulls in the collisions for long periods and looked en route to strangling the visitors in the first half at Newlands before a bizarre passage of play brought the Bulls back into it just after halftime, sent out an ominous warning to future opponents.

    The pack, with young players who are still officially under-21 such as Eben Etzebeth, Steven Kitshoff, Siya Kolisi and Frans Malherbe playing like they have been part of the Super Rugby firmament for years, impressed in the games before the derby. It was why many critics installed them as favourites to win. But the Bulls match was regarded as their acid test as up to then they had played against mostly depleted packs.

    The Bulls though were no more depleted than the Stormers, who will continue to miss regular captain and talisman Schalk Burger until 12 May as he battles with the knee injury sustained in the opening quarter hour of the new season. And their skipper Pierre Spies admitted afterwards that his men had been surprised by the ferocity and strength of the Stormers forward onslaught.

    So much of the Bulls’ success over the years has revolved over them attaining physical dominance over their opponents, so even though they had smashed the Reds the week before, it was always hard to see them being as assured against a team that knocked them back instead of allowing them to get momentum.

    It’s a long time though since we have seen a Bulls team looking as shell-shocked as they did in the first half, and the Stormers could have been further ahead than 14-0 at the break. The one thing that you cannot take away from the Bulls is their temperament and attitude, and in fighting back when all the odds were against them they did confirm in the second half that they retain that championship quality of being able to score when you have to and be competitive when the stats suggest they really shouldn’t be.

    They scored 10 points without replay in the time that lock Flip van der Merwe was off the field after being yellow carded following an early second-half infringement which came not long after a general team warning from referee Craig Joubert, who at times had his hands full containing two super-charged and physical teams.

    The try scored by Bjorn Basson was what ensured the game would be close, and it was a bit of a freak, with the Bulls hacking the ball upfield after the Stormers had been building up impressively. Still, the Stormers coaches will be well advised to address what is now becoming a regular feature of their game - the third quarter slump.

    But where the Stormers have grown a lot is in their ability to handle the close games, and in four of their five wins this season they have allowed teams to come back at them in the period between the 40th minute and the 60th minute and then found an extra gear to pull away again. The power of their scrum once Malherbe comes onto the field at the start of the last 20 minutes had a lot to do with that, and it did so again on Saturday.

    Apart from their inability to close out opponents, the Stormers also need to look at aspects of their attacking and kicking game, both of which played a role in keeping the Bulls in it.

    The Cape Town derby lived up to expectations and was a great way for South African rugby to put a seal on what had been a near perfect weekend, with only the Lions falling short. Even then they might have been more competitive against the Crusaders than some might have expected.

    The Sharks made sure they stayed in the conference race with a superb win over the Brumbies in Canberra, but the performance of the weekend was delivered by the Cheetahs, who recovered from a deficit of more than 20 points to beat the Hurricanes 47-38. It was their first ever win in New Zealand and they return from tour having won two in four, their best ever harvest from a road trip, with both of the losses being by narrow margins. Both South African teams who won overseas did so with a four-try bonus point.

    The surprise of the weekend though was possibly the Reds’ big loss to the Western Force, something that even before the kick-off of the Cape Town derby had put the Bulls’ performance of the previous week into perspective. In reality the Reds’ wheels came off after 30 minutes of the Sharks game two weeks ago and they have been in free fall ever since, conceding 133 points in the last five halves and 10 minutes of rugby that they have played.

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