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Valour in defeat for Stormers
Cape Town - Peter Grant summed up the Stormers’ spirit and undoubted steel these days as he stepped up to take the tricky little 83rd-minute penalty to end the Super Rugby match with the Crusaders in Christchurch on Saturday.
The seasoned flyhalf must have been exhausted, or at least very close to it, after living up most honourably to his “Bash” nickname on the night both in defence and attack, and was still oozing some blood from the four stitches he received in the first quarter above an eye after a clash of heads.
And yet the No 10 coolly landed the kick, cutting the closing margin to 31-24 and giving his side their first - and a thoroughly justified - bonus point of the season, solace for a maiden loss despite outscoring the much-touted Crusaders in the try column 2-1.
Getting that lone point was the least the Stormers deserved from an even contest between two clearly pedigreed sides, enthralling at times but also marred by the sometimes irritating extent of quarter-to-quarter tactical kicking.
Some overly parochial dimwits lambasted me in the build-up to the game for daring to suggest that this game would narrowly be a bridge too far for the visitors ... “another of those Cape All Blacks supporters”, they inexplicably branded me.
But I was simply acknowledging the important lesson of history in my forecast: the Stormers have never won in Christchurch, and that record simply drags on.
Yet credit must also go where it is so obviously due: Jean de Villiers and his sturdy men came desperately close at times to banishing that bogey.
Almost on the hour mark, after all, Bryan Habana’s left-corner try from a brilliantly astute left-footed cross-field dink from scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage got the Stormers to within 22-21, deprived only of a first-time lead by Joe Pietersen’s conversion drifting agonisingly wide.
Six minutes later, with the match on a knife-edge, utility forward Rynhardt Elstadt became an unlucky victim of a yellow card for a high but not malicious tackle - it was a classic case of two wrongs still making a wrong, as earlier the Crusaders’ Wyatt Crockett had also been binned for a similar offence in a glaring case of over-zealous officiating in a high-contact sport.
That said, the Stormers’ reduction to 14 men came at a more critical time, and caused mayhem among their tight five during the late exchanges because they’d effectively been reduced by three locks on the day.
In developments that may yet have some bearing on the continued broader health of their campaign, both starting second-rowers, Andries Bekker and Eben Etzebeth, had to come off the park with injuries well before the break.
There was some suggestion from the local television commentators that Bekker’s departure with lower back pain was “mostly precautionary”.
But the freakishly lanky No 5 has been plagued by problems in that area before, and the fast-emerging Etzebeth following him to the sidelines certainly seemed to signal that Lady Luck - who has generally smiled on this team in the first few weeks of the gruelling competition - is beginning to think of relocating to other franchises for a while.
Almost needless to say, given the improved staunchness of their squad system in recent seasons, De Kock Steenkamp hardly let the gritty cause down when he entered the lineout equation and other chores.
Nevertheless, the Bekker-Etzebeth combo has been a key pillar of the Stormers’ early competence in Super Rugby 2012, and if these soldiers were to be ruled out for a while simultaneously, it will make staying at or very near the head of the pack that little bit more difficult.
From this punishing game, the tourists now have only a six-day turnaround to Friday’s encounter with the Reds, in Brisbane – and the defending champions have had the luxury, by contrast, of a bye this weekend.
The one comfort for Stormers fans, looking ahead, is that this first reverse was anything but a capitulation and there is no reason to suspect that their confidence will have taken a knock in any way, or their hitherto successful battle-plan text require ripping up.
They were simply victims of an eternally professional and wily Crusaders outfit who really needed to bank a victory on Saturday because of their inconsistency preceding the important fixture.
Even in going down, several Stormers players continued to advance their claims for Springbok honours later in the season, among them the astonishingly in-form little fullback Pietersen, Juan de Jongh and Duane Vermeulen.
We also saw further evidence of the dramatic resurrection this year of Habana, who looked slippery in limited front-foot forays and wonderfully alert and committed when required to go backwards.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing