Damian Willemse hacked the ball into touch to draw the final whistle and Cape Town Stadium erupted in rapture as the Stormers capped a thrilling second-half comeback to claim a narrow victory over the Vodacom Bulls in a magnificent Vodacom United Rugby Championship final on Saturday.
Having trailed by four points after a tightly contested first half, the Stormers came out firing in the second and took advantage of a perhaps travel-wary Bulls outfit to power to a 18-13 victory in the inaugural URC final.
So often known as South Africa’s bridesmaids, losing out to the Bulls in the 2010 Super Rugby final and compiling a record of stumbling out of the playoffs, the Stormers clinched their first major continental title to finally give the franchise’s faithful supporters the silverware they have been craving since 1998.
The Bulls, three-time Super Rugby champions between 2007 and 2010, will look back on a dominant period in the first half and regret not having been more clinical with the opportunities on offer.
Tireless opensider Deon Fourie deserves much of the credit for the Stormers withstanding the early onslaught. The veteran fetcher commemorated his 100th game for the Cape side with a commanding breakdown performance, forcing vital turnovers with the hosts under pressure.
The Bulls made an electric start to the final when two powerful driving mauls resulted in inside centre Harold Vorster powering his way over the tryline for the opening score just two minutes into the contest.
Despite coming under immense pressure, the Stormers did their best to hang in there and then started to claw their way back into the contest from the 30-minute mark. The ball found Warrick Gelant with more frequency and the fullback took better options to gain some territorial dominance.
While Manie Libbok missed his first attempt at goal, he held his nerve to slot his second attempt just after the half-time hooter had sounded.
The Stormers took this momentum into the second half. Though Chris Smith slotted his second penalty just two minutes into the half, Stormers No 8 Evan Roos powered through a mass of defenders to reach out and dot the ball down, with Libbok converting to level the score at 10-10.
The Stormers continued to apply pressure through Gelant’s boot and the chaos took a toll on the Bulls’ composure. Centre Cornal Hendricks was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle on Ruhan Nel, and that provided the home side with the advantage they needed – a powerful maul sent replacement hooker Andre-Hugo Venter over for the try.
Smith’s third penalty narrowed the deficit to just two points. Ironically, with the Bulls warming up iconic match-winner Morne Steyn, it was Libbok who slotted the drop goal that gave the Stormers the buffer they needed, and Willemse grinned wildly as he cleared the ball into the stands and referee Andrew Brace signalled full time.
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