The final rites were applied to the Highlanders’ Super 14 season by the Stormers, the South Africans too big and too strong for the game but ultimately outmatched southerners.
With two tries to one, the Stormers, led by the always committed Schalk Burger, finally gained a win from an Australasian tour that had seen them rolled in all of their four previous matches.
And on the balance of play, on a night when the big South Africans sensed they had themselves a foe they not only outmatched on the size front, but the talent one too, the visitors were thoroughly deserving of their 18-11 victory.
Marc Hinton writes for Rugbyheaven NZ that the defeat snuffs out the faint hopes the Highlanders had of making the semi-finals; but in reality that dream had died last Friday on Eden Park when the southerners had been well beaten by the Blues.
It was the Stormers’ third win of the season, and was achieved with a superior set-piece effort, dominance at the breakdown and better finishing in general play. The visiting forwards, in particular, were impressive as men like Burger, Luke Watson, Duane Vermeulen and Andries Bekker had the better of their hosts.
Both sides defended stoutly, but the Stormers created much the better of the attacking opportunities and never allowed the Highlanders to build any momentum or get any flow in their game.
“It was a very disappointing night,” said home skipper Jimmy Cowan afterwards. “It was our last home game for the year and to finish on that note is very disappointing.
“they thoroughly deserved their win. We didn’t function at the set piece and couldn’t get any go-forward in our game, and as a result never got any flow on.”
A pretty uninspiring sort of first 40 – before yet another poor crowd that rocked up to the condemned old ground – ended with the Highlanders leading 6-0 courtesy of two Matt Berquist penalties.
You have to say the Stormers, on the last leg of their tortuous tour, were their own worst enemies in a spell where they won plenty of ball, but insisted on kicking the great majority of it away.
That sort of conservatism probably reflects the chief reason they’d lost all four matches on this trip. For all the talent littered through their lineup, they were just too reluctant to attack with ball in hand when the occasion warranted.
It was a tough old first 40 for the Highlanders who spent much of it hanging on grimly against the visitors who attacked them at the lineout (nabbing three against the throw in the opening half), at the breakdown and even gave them as much as they could handle at the scrum.
For all that the Highlanders looked far the more dangerous side with ball in hand, and twice worked good enough field position to earn kickable penalties that Berquist stepped up and slotted.
There was one controversial moment about half and hour in when the Highlanders accused a Stormers player of biting in a tangle on the deck. But it was not spotted by match officials and the situation passed unpunished.
There was a feeling that the South Africans had to score first in the second spell to have any chance in this contest, and they duly obliged after just three minutes when Fijian wing Sireli Naqeluvuki was put clear for a long run to the line that narrowed the gap to 5-6.
The opportunity came via a shocking option from Highlanders No 8 George Naoupu who for some strange reason tried to put a grubber kick in from an attacking foray and succeeded only in gifting possession to Peter Grant who was happy to put his wing away on a run to the line.
The lead was reclaimed eight minutes later when the hugely impressive home fullback Israel Dagg was the architect and his wing Ben Smith the finisher as the Highlanders attacked from phase play.
But the Stormers had the decisive say 10 minutes from time when inside centre Peter Grant went across wide on the left following a long period where the Stormers were hammering away at the Highlanders’ line. When ball was eventually shifted, a huge defensive stand meant there were no troops left to cover the flank. Willem de Waal’s conversion stretched the margin to seven, which left the Highlanders needing to score twice to snatch victory.
That never looked likely, though one great breakout from Jason Shoemark did threaten a seven-pointer that would have levelled the scores. But Bekker eventually hauled him down and the Stormers were able to clear the danger.
The Highlanders’ night was summed up when the otherwise impressive Dagg kicked dead from a late penalty to deny his side any chance of the draw.
The Highlanders in the end could have no argument with the result, unable to stamp themselves on proceedings up front, and left with too little in the way of quality possession to work with.
Highlanders 11: Ben Smith try; Matt Berquist 2 pens.
Stormers 18: Sireli Naqeluvuki, Peter Grant tries; Willem de Waal 2 pens, con.Tweet