Jon Cardinelli reports from Cape Town Stadium
THE FAIRY TALE CONTINUES for John Dobson’s Stormers, who claimed their 10th successive victory on Saturday to advance to the inaugural United Rugby Championship final.
At the start of the season, the Stormers are paralyzed by financial and administrative problems. Few, if any, gave the Cape Town-based side a chance to qualify for the URC playoffs, let alone challenge for the title.
And yet here we are, some nine months later, with the Stormers ready to host an all-South African URC final. Whisper it, but the Stormers will go into next week’s decider against the Bulls as favorites to lift the trophy.
Credit: Steve Haag/INPHO
The result at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday capped a game-changing weekend for South African rugby. Less than 24 hours after the Bulls completed one of rugby’s great heists in Dublin – securing the first victory for a South African club on Irish soil – the Stormers have outclassed Ulster via a conversion by Manie Libbok after the whistle.
Ulster came into this clash with a point to prove – having lost to Stormers in controversial circumstances in April. Following that defeat, an obviously upset manager, Dan McFarland, declared Ulster to be the better team.
The semi-final clash provided Ulster with the opportunity to set the record straight. Before the match, Dobson spoke about Ulster’s strengths at the maul and in the air. The Stormers manager felt Ulster would provide the Cape Town side with their toughest tactical test yet.
The Stormers threw the first significant punch of the fight when they scored a try via the rolling maul in the fourth minute. Referee Mike Adamson initially awarded a penalty try, but then awarded the try to hooker JJ Kotze.
The hosts established another solid platform deep in Ulster territory and were shaped to move the ball to the open side. Evan Roos swept to the short side and found Herschel Jantjies in space on the touchline. The Stormers scrum-half returned the ball to the No. 8, who touched down to give his team a 10-0 lead.
Ulster fought back immediately, scoring via Rob Baloucoune in the right corner. The partisan crowd at Cape Town Stadium felt the final pass to Baloucoune had gone forward and booed John Cooney as he lined up the conversion. The scrum half slipped as he approached the tee and the attempt deflected.
But the momentum was with Ulster in the closing stages of half-time. Stewart Moore scored after Ulster found more space in the wide channels, and this time Cooney got the conversion right.
Ulster began to execute their overhead kicking game to devastating effect. Their defense fended off wave after wave of the Stormers attack and picked up a minor victory after Libbok slipped into the pocket and sent a drop-goal attempt wide.
Cooney netted a penalty straight off the whistle to give his side a 15-10 halftime lead. As was the case in the league game between these sides, Ulster seemed to be getting stronger as the contest progressed.
The visitors kicked into high gear in the third quarter. They started breaking through the Stormers defense with ease and maybe scored twice if not for a few untimely errors.
Ulster denied a shot on goal in favor of a lineout and a try. The Stormers, however, managed to force the turnover and leave their half.
At the other end of the field, the Stormers let slip a golden opportunity by refusing a penalty in front of the posts. Libbok then missed the contact.
The game looked to be Ulster’s one to lose after Stormers were penalized for foul play. Substitute lock Adré Smith was shown a red card in the 71st minute after hitting an Ulster player in the face.
Somehow the hosts managed to fight back and earn themselves a penalty in Ulster’s 22. Another maul, however, resulted in yet another turnaround.
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And the Stormers kept coming. The final whistle sounded and Adamson awarded the hosts another penalty past the posts.
The 14-man team opted for a scrum. A long pass to an unmarked Warrick Gelant resulted in a five-pointer into the left corner and put the crowd on their feet.
With the scores locked at 15-15, Libbok found himself with a tough conversion to win the game.
Libbok had missed two previous kicks and made a number of errors in the general game. With everything on the line, however, he kept his nerve to split the amounts – and win his team a place in the URC finals.
Stormers scorers: Tries: JJ Kotze, Evan Roos, Warrick Gelant Conversions: Manie Libbok [1 from 3]
Ulster goalscorers: Tests: Rob Baloucoune, Stewart Moore Conversions: John Cooney [1 from 2] Sanctions: John Cooney [1 from 1]
STORMS: Warrick Gelant, Seabelo Senatla, Ruhan Nel, Damian Willemse, Leolin Zas (Godlen Masimla 34′), Manie Libbok, Herschel Jantjies; Steven Kitshoff (captain, Brok Harris 77′), JJ Kotze (Andre-Hugo Venter 68′), Frans Malherbe (Neethling Fouché 61′), Salmaan Moerat, Marvin Orie (Adré Smith 68′, Deon Fourie (Nama Xaba 27′, 68′), Hacjivah Dayimani, Evan Roos.
ULSTER: Stewart Moore, Rob Baloucoune (Ben Moxham 47′), James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Andrew Warwick (Nathan Doak 71′), Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor (Kieran Treadwell 68′), Iain Henderson (captain), Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.
Arbitrator: mike adamson [SRU].