Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Suggestion for new definition of a masochist: someone who resolutely commits South African derbies in Super Rugby to a video archive and then watches them on repeat.
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The not so rich tradition of these tussles failing to come up trumps for entertainment value simply surfaced again at Newlands on Saturday, where a combination of the Stormers' thoroughly admirable defensive blanket and the Bulls' rank lack of composure and cutting edge on attack made for 80 tough-to-watch minutes in the summer heat.
An all too familiar, uncompromising and mistake-laden arm-wrestle saw the hosts at least show the necessary levels of discipline and herculean resistance as a tackling and scrambling force to grind out a deserved enough 13-0 outcome in their favour.
It was also two tries to nil, one a trademark dot-down - by official player of the match Scarra Ntubeni - off a rumbling lineout drive and the other (thank heavens for small mercies) a smartly-constructed raid involving deft lead-up hand skills from Johan Du Toit and Dillyn Leyds before left wing Seabelo Senatla cracked on the pace to romp over with so-welcome elegance.
This was a second match on the trot in which the Stormers have carried out a “thou shalt not breach our wall” quest with genuinely unerring success - the Hurricanes had similarly registered a fat nil on the scoreboard against them last week.
While the Capetonians will rightly bask in that statistic for the time being, the Bulls have a contrasting quandary: how to find a first try of the campaign after 160 minutes of often honest enough huffing and puffing without one yet.
Pote Human’s charges, also still not sporting a single log point after successive away derbies against the Sharks and Stormers, have a bye next weekend which only means that their status on the overall and conference tables will be made to look even worse for another week.
But the gap of a fortnight before they play the Blues at Loftus does offer the opportunity to pep up their offensive game as earnestly as possible - they botched two or three highly promising moves on Saturday through dreadful option-taking.
Remember that this was the best-performing South African team in Super Rugby 2019, when they ended second in the SA conference behind the Jaguares and were gallant quarter-final losers to the Hurricanes in Wellington; right now the country’s best hopes in 2020 already seem to lie firmly with both, unbeaten coastal outfits.
Pinned to their own territory some two-thirds of the time, and not enjoying the lion’s share of possession either, the Stormers did show great smartness in somehow creating a situation in this contest where Morne Steyn, the Bulls’ veteran flyhalf and metronomic factor off the tee, did not earn a single crack at the posts.
That mere fact alone negated so many of the 35-year-old’s most notable strengths ... and will have only cranked up debate around whether his style of play - though far from the only drawback at present, let it be said - is a bit of an impediment to regular activity in the “tries for” column by the Pretoria team.
Significantly, maybe, when the more hard-to-police Manie Libbok took over at pivot in the 63rd minute (all the total match points had already been scored) he made one lovely break that would have led to a Bulls try and made the finish a much more tense one but for Cornal Hendricks’ awful final pass decision: the ball only went into the hands of Stormers reserve prop Ali Vermaak after a three-on-one situation in the visitors’ massive favour.
Ironically, if the Stormers have one fallible area to work on it also surrounds flyhalf play to some extent … or more specifically the relative shakiness of general-play thriller Damian Willemse in the place-kicking role, something that was apparent for a second week in a row.
Their head coach John Dobson did, commendably, acknowledge in a post-match television interview that his own charges hadn’t always played with best fluency or thrust in front of a pretty good audience in the blazing sunshine of 27, 301: “We want to play with more rhythm; spread our wings,” he vowed.
But they will go to the Highveld next weekend with their squad confidence at rosy levels for another derby, against a Lions side looking fallible in an area the Stormers are traditionally forceful at: scrum time.
That area of play kept an earthy Reds team in this Saturday’s soggy-pitch clash at Emirates Airline Park firmly in the contest for longer than the hosts would have liked, before they eked out a 27-20 score-line for their first success of the season.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Blues v Crusaders, 08:05; Rebels v Waratahs, 10:15. Saturday: Sunwolves v Chiefs, 05:45; Hurricanes v Sharks, 08:05; Brumbies v Highlanders, 10:15; Lions v Stormers, 15:05. Sunday: Jaguares v Reds, 01:00. Bye: Bulls.
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