An 18-11 victory to the Cape Town based side over the Highlanders was a tight affair, significant for many more reasons than the match result itself.
The Highlanders took a 6-0 lead into halftime, a fair snapshot of the game. It was a match where it was not lack of ability kept the points low, but the organisation and effectiveness of the team’s defences and hunger.
In the second half the Stormers took control of the match, and while the Highlanders kept coming at the South Africans – who were seeking their first win of a five match tour – there was something significantly different in the way Stormers went about their business.
If they had played like this all season, then they would be fulfilling the preseason talk of being title challengers.
For the Highlanders, it was their last home match before a tough run home against the Sharks and Lions in South Africa, and then the Force at Subiaco; who can lay claims to being Australia’s best side.
With 23 points and only a maximum 15 points available left to the Otago based franchise, it effectively ends the Highlanders unlikely charge to the semi-finals, and will likely consign the team to the bottom half of the table.
For a team that took the scalps of both the 2007 (Bulls) and 2008 (Crusaders) Super 14 champions, as well as the Reds and Cheetahs; this could be considered a bit unfair. This was also a team that lost to the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Brumbies, by less than five points.
But this week, like their previous match against the Blues, their inadequacies as a potential championship team were revealed. Team spirit and tenacious defence are vital components, but the inability to string together consistent and threatening attack is the difference between teams like the Highlanders, and potential title challengers.
Still, they will play the part of a dangerous spoiler. Upset victories over the Sharks or Force in coming weeks would derail those respective side’s top four chances.
If the team stays together, the young players, with talents like outstanding fullback Israel Dagg and playmakers Matt Berquist and Dan Bowden, will only get better with time.
However, it was the Stormers that really warranted mention.
A team that last season lost four matches in their opening rounds, before winning three matches on their major tour—a South African record—to finish unbeaten from their last seven rounds. They only missed out on a top four spot by point’s difference, and were only three competition points off finishing second on the table.
They were strong odds to take a semi final position this year.
But they have been far and away the biggest disappointment of the 2009 Super 14.
There was though a significant occurrence this week; that would have taken the attention of all the South African teams, especially the prospective and incumbent test players.
The naming of the British Lions team.
Suddenly, the talk and conjecture is over. And the tour now begins in just over one month.
And in reaction, for the first time this season, we saw a menace and intensity in the South African tactical display that has not been evident so far this Super 14.
For with the greatest respect to the Super 14, the Lions tour will now be evident in the minds of the South African players, arguably the second most important international rugby event after the World Cup, and in the minds of many, the most significant rugby event.
The Stormers loose forward combination of Luke Watson, Duane Vermeulen and Schalk Burger was terrifying, as a trio effecting over 50 tackles, 20 rucks, 20 runs, and six turnovers.
There was the trademark ferocity in the visiting teams brute effort, the niggle and physicality that we expect from high level South African performances.
The offensive defence and co-ordinated pack mentality effectively won the match for the Stormers, as now a mammoth incentive for the players has been prompted, that of an international test cap for a Lions series.
In a game that was almost identical for each sides respective statistics, it was this that appeared to separate the two teams.
Tries: Naqeulevuki, Grant
Conversions: de Waal 1/2
Penalties: de Waal 2/3
Conversions: Berquist 0/1
Penalties: Berquist 2/2
Match statistics: Highlanders – Stormers
Rucks/Mauls: 73 - 66
Line breaks: 2 – 2
Scrums: 12 – 7
Scrums lost: 0 – 0
Line outs: 9 – 19
Line outs lost: 3 – 4
Runs / Metres: 82 (413) – 76
Kicks / Metres: 31 (993) – 32 (1183)
Tackles: 81 – 72
Tackles Missed: 15 – 15
Turnovers: 23 – 24
Penalties: 4 – 6
Possession: 50 -50