Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town – Another astonishingly authoritative, rounded performance by 19-year-old flyhalf Damian Willemse marked the latest step in the Stormers’ Super Rugby 2018 resurgence as they made it three out of three at Newlands thus far.
Since returning from a three-match Australasian tour that brought only a trio of losses, the Capetonians have stabilised very satisfactorily with successive home triumphs over the Blues and now, on Saturday, the Reds by a 25-19 margin that looked closer on paper than it probably was.
They held a commanding 18-0 lead at one point in the first half, and then held the aces by 25-14 for a lengthy period right up to the 79th minute when a long-range try by the Queenslanders dramatically narrowed the gap and a further attack by James Slipper’s men nearly secured a sensational theft of the spoils.
But the Stormers nevertheless weathered the late scare for a deserved four log points, taking them to 13 from six matches (50 percent win record), eighth overall and a stable second in the SA conference behind the Lions (19) who had a later kick-off against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.
Considering the overseas reverses for both the Sharks and Bulls in the latest round, the Stormers have shifted four points clear of the Kings Park outfit (nine) and eight ahead of the Bulls (five) – although both those teams have played one fixture less.
Up against an improving, young Reds team who had won three matches from four before Newlands, the Stormers – not long recovered from a debilitating, disruptive flu virus in the camp -- had to produce a physical, workmanlike showing to blunt their rugged guests and generally rose to the occasion.
They also butchered several excellent try-scoring opportunities – either through over-hastiness or handling errors -- that might have led to a bonus point, but more attention to clinical finishing should make them an even better force going forward.
There does appear to be a renewed sense of vibrancy and motivation about them, and they will go to Loftus next Saturday, for an appealing derby with the rebuilding Bulls, mindful that John Mitchell’s charges will just have flown back long-haul from New Zealand.
Still, the Bulls do have the minor comfort of an eight-day turnaround to the clash (they played the Crusaders on Friday) and there is every chance of a particularly engrossing showdown at No 10, where 26-cap Bok incumbent Handre Pollard looks earmarked to oppose the fast-emerging Willemse.
As things stand, both look very sound bets for inclusion in Rassie Erasmus’s broad squad plans for the three-Test series against England in June.
The teenager played with just about as much verve and constructiveness as he did against the Blues a week ago, earning fulsome praise during the match from SuperSport commentator and long-time Springbok and Stormers favourite Jean de Villiers.
“The beauty about Damian is you’ve always got youngsters like himself with fantastic skill sets, able to terrorise defences, but the way he defends as well, the way he kicks at goal and the maturity he’s shown at only 19 … he is a serious talent,” enthused De Villiers.
“The manner in which he directs play, his ability to keep (his team) on the front foot … truly a quality player.”
Current Stormers captain and flanker Siya Kolisi, who put in another muscular shift of his own, joined the praise-singing immediately afterwards: “He just loves the game … his passion is (infectious). The way he sticks to detail and even pushes the old guys; it’s really good to have him.”
The official player-of-the-match award went to wing Raymond Rhule, based on his pleasing potency on attack against the Reds, although it could just as easily have gone Willemse’s way for a second match on the trot – especially as Rhule was still guilty of some defensive gremlins, an old bogey of his.
Next weekend’s Super Rugby fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday: Chiefs v Highlanders, 08:35; Rebels v Hurricanes, 10:45. Saturday: Blues v Sharks, 08:35; Brumbies v Waratahs, 10:45; Bulls v Stormers, 17:15. Sunday: Lions v Crusaders, 14:30. Byes: Jaguares, Sunwolves, Reds.
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