Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Heavy weather? Oh, you bet.
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But the Stormers, even if it took them more than 82 minutes to break the hearts of the Lions’ faithful, nevertheless served strong notice of their SA conference-bossing aspirations in Super Rugby this year with a priceless 33-30 pinching of the spoils from the derby in sun-baked Johannesburg on Saturday.
There were ironies aplenty in the way the Capetonians eked out this one, in an initially slow-burning, imperfect contest that suddenly turned thrill-a-minute at an advanced stage of the last quarter.
Just one of those - and so vitally, in the final analysis - was the slick, vibrant way the Stormers both retained possession and shifted the ball from hand to hand in the decisive move after the siren that began with a scrum put-in about midway out on the park.
After all, the most notable feature of their first two victories had been the ruthless defensive shut-out of the Hurricanes and Bulls respectively, far more than anything to do with a cutting edge on attack.
But with key lead-up contributions from substitute flyhalf Jean-Luc du Plessis, increasingly dangerous right wing Sergeal Petersen and then a calm finish from centre Ruhan Nel, John Dobson’s charges enterprisingly clinched the deal with the closing raid of the match after being stung by a Lions fightback that had seen the hosts sensationally hit the front 27-26 (and then 30-26 after 77 minutes) after previously trailing by 11 points for a protracted period.
The other irony was that this fixture saw the Lions - and kudos to Ivan van Rooyen’s youthful, rebuilding outfit for that - comprehensively end the try-shy phenomenon by early opponents of the Stormers in 2020: they ran in a quartet of their own at Ellis Park for a 4-4 share of things in that department.
Astute SuperSport pundit Hanyani Shimange described it as a “massive result” for the Stormers, as they went three from three in the competition following their first sojourn away from Newlands and were guaranteed to head the conference by a very minimum of two points after completion of the round, regardless of the Jaguares’ outcome much later at home to the Reds.
Co-critic Warren Brosnihan also made the point that the now only unbeaten team in the group had shown “tremendous resilience (in Johannesburg) ... they have got to be a team that is well bonded”.
While a very close shave, it meant that the Stormers have had their best start to the competition since 2017, when they won all of their first six matches on the trot - a fairly pronounced regression then followed, though they did go on to be beaten quarter-finalists that year.
Their scrum was once again a key platform toward grinding out the result, and captain and Springbok loosehead prop Steven Kitshoff, in the absence of a specialist fetcher in their ranks, was a constant menace to the Lions over the ball.
Another heartening development for the Stormers was previously injury-bedevilled eighth-man Juarno “Trokkie” Augustus, the 22-year-old powerhouse, making an impactful return at this level to add anew to the depth of their current loose forward stocks.
While the score-line was a little cruel on the gallant Lions, for whom their own leader Elton Jantjies produced some magical moments, the visitors snapped a mini-hoodoo at Ellis Park, where they had lost three on the trot in Super Rugby (including quite hefty 41-22 results in 2019 and 52-31 in 2018).
The Stormers have a tantalising opportunity to only solidify their position in the conference as they next face the Jaguares, who won it last season, back at Newlands next weekend after the Argentineans will have travelled long-haul.
There is a further, winnable-looking home date with the Blues to follow, before a bye and then a trip to Durban to tackle coastal rivals the Sharks.
The KwaZulu-Natalians’ two-game hot streak ended a little earlier on Saturday when they were soundly beaten 38-22 by the Hurricanes in the Cake Tin.
Still, there were mitigating factors at play for Sean Everitt’s men, as they were monumentally affected by injury setbacks both in the immediate lead-up to the match and then within it, where they were forced into several makeshift positional switches.
But while they did well to hold the ‘Canes to 17-17 at the break, the match did confirm in red letters that the Sharks’ set-piece play - both scrum and lineout - is a potential stumbling block to their otherwise ambitious plans this year and zesty, counter-attacking brand of play.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, February 21
Crusaders v Highlanders - 08:05
Saturday, February 22
Rebels v Sharks - 05:45
Chiefs v Brumbies - 08:05
Reds v Sunwolves - 10:15
Stormers v Jaguares - 15:05
Bulls v Blues - 17:15
Byes: Lions, Hurricanes, Waratahs
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