The day the Bulls were bullied
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - With four wins from four starts, including now such a seismic one at Loftus, Stormers fans could even start to excuse this little “win without many tries” phenomenon, eh?
For the record, it was just one touchdown apiece in their breathless, uncompromising Super Rugby derby against the Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday, with a barrage of penalty goals from Peter Grant again the keynote activity in scoreboard terms.
And yet supporters of the Cape franchise – there seemed to be appreciative swathes of them in the champions’ corral, which must have aided the away cause just a bit – wouldn’t have spent their immediate post-match time lamenting the relative try drought.
Instead they would have toasted what amounted to a serious warning to the Bulls, from the beaten finalists of 2010, that they might indeed muster the grunt and endeavour to go one better this year.
Just a wee tempering reminder at this point: conference fixtures continue until mid-June, before the knockout stuff kicks in, so there is plenty of time yet for twists, turns, dramatic momentum shifts ... and of course jaw-dropping results like the one in Sydney earlier on Saturday. (Who, pray tell, had the Cheetahs not only to beat the Waratahs but do so by 20 points?)
But there’s no disputing that the Bulls were truly rattled by this 23-13 reverse at a supposed fortress that has suddenly become a gateway to pleasure over successive rounds for the Highlands and Stormers.
And especially, I think, because their great southern rivals truly “fronted up” at last to lay the foundations for a hugely satisfying achievement (the Bulls were restricted to a solitary Morne Steyn penalty in the second half, and were more broadly the back-foot team as they couldn’t even bank a losing bonus point).
The Stormers were not slow to bang in a peg of intent: albeit a little fortuitously, they heeled against the head at a scrum even as some spectators were still settling into their seats, and this was the area, particularly, where they gave the Bulls consistently more grief than they would have anticipated.
And while a certain Bakkies Botha flung himself into first-half tackles and rucks with customary zeal, the visitors sported a fresh-faced second-row terminator of their own in 21-year-old Rynhardt Elstadt, who answered fire with tight-loose fire despite his palpable concession of experience.
The sight of the “kid” smashing into men must have had a galvanising effect on the rest of the Stormers eight, as the pack gradually established superiority and ensured that, unlike the really hard-earned win against the territory-ruling Highlanders at Newlands last week, Jean de Villiers’s outfit didn’t have to spend big pockets of time defending grimly.
The Bulls’ rare indignity in the engine room continued right through to the final scrum of the match, when Wicus Blaauw “popped” substitute tighthead Rossouw de Klerk.
And it was not as though the bossing team didn’t show some welcome flashes of attacking flair, either: people like De Villiers, his midfield mate Jaque Fourie and impressive scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage created half-chances that might have turned to tries with greater precision and composure.
The game was also a triumph for Allister Coetzee and the rest of the Stormers brains trust strategically: they combated a strong Bulls bench by loading their own with appropriate resources and then using them well to thwart any belated Bulls attempt to get a head of steam.
And Coetzee, who had defended Bryan Habana, the out-of-form “Beckham” of his squad in poster-boy appeal, with such unusual indignation only a few days earlier, would have whooped as gleefully as anyone when the left wing, with a brilliant bit of opportunism and dogged determination, dotted what amounted to the match-sealing try in the 70th minute from Duvenage’s dink over the top.
What’s up with the Bulls, then?
There will be some head-scratching around Loftus in the next few days, as it now seems the Highlanders setback was no bolt from the blue.
They were heavily penalised at the breakdown for a second occasion on the trot, and at present their chief burrower Deon Stegmann is an all-too-clear liability here. And once again No 8 Pierre Spies having to scramble, rather than rampage, is not the most convincing sight in the world, which is some further food for Springbok worry.
General discipline is also a bugbear, as a grim-faced Victor Matfield admitted afterwards, as evidenced by a penalty count of around 13-5 in favour of the Stormers.
Although neighbours the Lions didn’t exactly set Coca-Cola Park on fire against the Force, expect them to try to cheekily cash in next week on the Bulls’ relative disarray as a Highveld derby looms large.
It really would be alarm bells if the Bulls lose three in a row at Loftus .
My guess is they’ll regroup ...