Stormers Clinch SA Conference Title
The Stormers clinched the South African Conference title for the second successive year with a 13-6 win over the Cheetahs in atrocious weather in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
With the Sharks beating the second-placed Bulls in Durban on Friday night and subsequently leaving both teams on 54 log points, the Stormers (58) ran onto the drenched Free State Stadium paddock knowing they needed just two log points to secure an all-important home play-off.
The inclement weather favoured the men from the Cape in more ways than one as their experience of playing wet-weather rugby and conservative game plan gave them the tactical edge over their hosts, who had during the week said that they would look to run the Stormers ragged.
It was a case of the Cheetahs failing to convert their opportunities into points and the Stormers backing their watertight defence - especially in the latter stages of the match.
Naka Drotske will rue his charges’ inability to finish, with flyhalf Riaan Smit also missing two kicks at goal, as well a his side’s indiscipline, which negated the hosts’ superiority in the scrums.
The game got off to a scrappy start with the returning Joe Pietersen spilling two high balls with the Cheetahs launching a barrage of high bombs onto the Stormers fullback.
A ping-pong aerial battle ensued with basic mistakes at the set pieces making for a frustrating opening 15 minutes, before Peter Grant sparked a try-scoring opportunity with an incisive dart in the attacking 22.
The Cheetahs just managed to keep the Stormers out but conceded a penalty in the process, which Grant popped over to open the scoring.
Heinrich Brussow inspired the hosts with two bone-jarring hits on Jean de Villiers and Rynhardt Elstadt respectively as the Cheetahs were made to defend by the visitors, who started building continuity with ball-in-hand.
Returning Baby Bok prop Steven Kitshoff strengthened the Stormers at scrum time after they were outmuscled by the Lions last weekend, but the Cape side still struggled in this facet and were penalised when tighthead Frans Malherbe buckled under the pressure.
Smit pushed his kick to the right but made amends two minutes later when he levelled the scores. The Cheetahs had slowly worked their way back into the contest in terms of territory and possession and the 3-all score line at half time was a fair reflection of the game.
The Stormers took the initiative immediately after the break as the Cheetahs’ discipline led them down. The hosts conceded a string of penalties inside their own 22 in quick succession, with Marius Jonker’s patience finally running out when Willie le Roux knocked the ball on in an intercept attempt from an offside position and was promptly yellow-carded.
The 14-man Cheetahs held firm, enough so to, when presented with another penalty, De Villiers opted to take the points, with Grant obliging to double the Stormers’ tally.
It was a bizarre decision considering they had turned down numerous shots at goals during the five-minute period of dominance.
The Cheetahs were notably buoyed only to have conceded three points and had seemingly dealt a psychological blow to their vaunted visitors through their resolute defence.
Good counter-rucking by the Cheetahs won them a penalty and Smit made no mistake to square the ledger. The Stormers hit straight back with the play of the day when Grant spotted space behind the Cheetahs’ defensive line and chipped the ball to an unmarked Gio Aplon to gather and score.
Grant converted from a difficult angle to put his side 13-6 up after 54 minutes. Brussow was again influential, this time winning two turnovers in quick succession to have the Stormers scrambling back in defence only for his efforts to come to nought.
The hosts came within a metre of hitting back in their next attacking foray after their driving maul was stopped just short and WP Nel knocked on in his surge for the line to let the Stormers off the hook once more.
Momentum was clearly with the hosts and replacement flyhalf Sias Ebersohn took a page out of Grant’s playbook when he chipped in-goal for Smit, with the ball just beating him over the dead-ball line.
With nine minutes to go, the Cheetahs had an opportunity to reduce the deficit to four, but Smit missed a regulation penalty and with it went the Cheetahs’ chances of snatching a late upset.
Despite their best efforts to force a draw, the Cheetahs were unable to do so as two late lineout steals put paid to their ambition and saw the Stormers seal their unrivalled 13th win of the season.
SARugby.com Man of the Match: Flankers Heinrich Brussow and Siya Kolisi were impressive, as were opposing hookers Adriaan Strauss and Deon Fourie.
It was apparent throughout the match, though, that Peter Grant was the most influential figure of the afternoon. He varied his play superbly, making a couple of key line-breaks through his willingness to attack the gain line and kicking well out of hand.
He also enjoyed a flawless afternoon at goal and made a clear statement to Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer after being overlooked for the England series.
Cheetahs - Penalties: Riaan Smit (2).
Stormers - Tries: Gio Aplon. Conversions: Peter Grant. Penalties: Grant (2).