Stormers right back in hunt

    2013-04-26 14:27

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – At risk very recently of receding to premature also-ran status, the Stormers are suddenly back quite strongly among the playoffs contenders in Super Rugby 2013.

    Friday’s hard-fought but deserved 18-16 victory over the Hurricanes in windy Palmerston North propelled them to the top half of the overall table, in seventh place, even if that situation is likely to change fairly shortly as theirs was the first contest of the weekend’s seven-match programme.

    But the result was particularly satisfying as it saw them crucially knock over another team in the well-subscribed “middling” territory of the general log, which the Capetonians have clawed their way healthily back into.

    GALLERY: Hurricanes v Stormers

    They are also right among the increasingly fascinating, four-team logjam in the South African conference for spots in the finals series: just one point separated all of the Bulls, Stormers, Cheetahs and Sharks at the time of writing.

    There is a lobby – I cannot yet bring myself to join them – who believe Jean de Villiers’s side may earn a first-time, 100 percent Australasian tour record this year. (Should it happen, that would really restore their challenge to a stellar extent, as it might even give them a crack at earning a third successive home semi-final.)

    In truth, the latest performance wasn’t quite convincing enough to scream that the Stormers are going to rampage through their four-game overseas roster victorious each time, but a winning start is all they will have cared about as they clinked a bottle or two in the post-match changing room.

    It was a very 2012-like effort by the side, with a determined collective work ethic and largely un-budging, suffocating defence seeing them eke out four points in a ding-dong scrap.

    You have to give this outfit great credit -- even as some doubts will persist as to whether they possess a genuine, championship-quality skill and swagger – for sheer, bloody-minded resilience and intelligence when it matters most.

    The Stormers always do lots of “little things” extraordinarily well: by glowing example, Bryan Habana serially has a stab at charging down conversions and on Friday his keenness paid off in a big way as he did the trick against unsuspecting Beauden Barrett on the stroke of halftime.

    It meant that although the ‘Canes still went into the break with an 11-7 lead (having been aided by the wind, making the margin no train smash for the visitors), Habana had denied the home side two points in a tight contest and it must have caused a surge of confidence in the broad Stormers ranks.

    Who knows, the charge-down may also have only aggravated any place-kicking yips by Barrett, who adjusted less well than his Stormers counterpart off the tee, Joe Pietersen, to the awkward conditions for the chore.

    No wonder one of Habana’s seasoned Springbok allies, the Bulls captain Pierre Spies, issued a congratulatory tweet (@Pierrespies8) afterwards: “Well done @BryanHabana – small things make the big difference!”

    Two pressure-relieving lineout poaches by that second-row revelation De Kock Steenkamp, one hugely important tackle by loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff on a rare occasion when the Stormers defence looked like rarely shattering into bits, a breakdown steal by the unlikely figure of Gio Aplon well in his own team’s quarter ... all those factors helped sway the outcome of the nail-biter.

    There was also a fitting tribute to the ceaseless vigour of No 8 Duane Vermeulen from commentator Justin Marshall, an All Black who is increasingly often an Antipodean breath of fresh air for his notable lack of parochialism: “He’s been monumental for the Stormers tonight.”

    Another feather in the Stormers’ cap is that they seemed to have taken on board a bitter lesson learnt in that gut-wrenching late loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein a few weeks ago: don’t lose your scrummaging focus when it really counts!

    Here they produced a concerted heave after the siren to ensure the key close-out of the match, and there had also been a splendid right shoulder at scrum-time to open up necessary space for Aplon’s 64th-minute touchdown ... the last of the scoring.

    Next up for the Stormers are the Blues at Albany next Friday (09:35 SA time), followed by games in Australia against the Waratahs and Rebels respectively.

    There is still precious little scope for Allister Coetzee’s charges to take their feet off the pedal, but they will also feel that a fresh wave of momentum may be building at a good time ...

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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