The Stormers ended a four-match losing streak, grinding out a necessary win over the Blues at Newlands on Friday to reassert their undisputed control of the Africa 1 Super Rugby conference.
After heavy losses on their recent New Zealand tour, the Stormers simply needed to eke out any old win and they duly did it thanks to some fierce second half defence, and physical dominance in the final quarter aided by a late red card for the Blues.
Wing Matt Duffie was sent off in the 66th minute after his second yellow card offence, and the extra man in the closing stages proved the difference on a night each side scored three tries.
The Stormers moved to 30 points on the standings, 15 clear of the Bulls in their conference and are all but into the play-offs while the Blues’ slim hopes are on life support after the setback.
It was victory for character and resilience by the home team after a tough last five weeks, as they remain the only ‘foreign’ team to beat a franchise from New Zealand this season.
New Zealand teams have collectively played 34 matches against overseas opponents in Super Rugby this season and lost two. Both defeats have been inflicted by the Stormers, who earlier in the year beat the Chiefs at Newlands.
The Blues, clearly NZ’s fifth best team, lack a tight five to match the rest. It was in that area of the match where the Stormers gained control through the incredible work of locks Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit once again.
They were well backed up by captain Siya Kolisi and No 8 Nizaam Carr while Blues prop Charlie Faumuina was a handful in the loose.
The giant tighthead provided two offloads that led to first half tries for hooker James Parsons and centre George Moala, but his presence was less obvious in the set phases.
Etzebeth and Du Toit were omnipresent in the loose while the Stormers pack bossed the scrums – even holding their own when Etzebeth was in the sin bin following a minor fracas late in the first half.
The Blues have some outstanding backs with All Black centres Moala and Sonny Bill Williams providing moments of inspiration.
Although the Blues still scored three tries, it was a more urgent defensive display from the Stormers after weeks of losing the gainline battle, that was the biggest improvement.
Their linespeed was impressive as they shut down potentially dangerous attacks, suffocating the Blues’ offloading game, while there was also better decision-making at the breakdown.
The Blues’ two tries inside 33 minutes had them well ahead approaching halftime when Kolisi scored just before the break to give his side a lift after the Blues had run into a 12-3 lead.
But the euphoria was short-lived when Blues flank Blake Gibson benefitted from smart work by Sonny Bill to restore a nine-point cushion with a soft try in the 44th minute.
The Stormers though stayed composed and worked their way back into the match through better tactical kicking and uncompromising defensive work. From the improved field position fullback SP Marais added three late penalties while Leyds scored from a quickly taken tap penalty on the hour.
Replacement flank Sikhumbuzo Notshe was awarded a try when he crashed over from close range, which gave the home team some breathing space at critical stage in the match.
Tries: Siya Kolisi, Dillyn Leyds, Sikhumbuzo Notshe
Conversions: SP Marais (3)
Penalty: Marais (3).
Ties: George Moala, James Parsons, Blake Gibson
Conversions: Piers Francis (2)
Penalty: Bryn Gatland.
By Craig Ray, At Newlands – Tiso Black Star Group/Tiso Black Star Group Sport