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.
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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