Stellenbosch University had to pull out all the stops and more to exit the field of contest victorious in their match against Stor-Age False Bay RFC at the Danie Craven Stadium on Saturday. The final score was 19-18 to the students after they led 7-6 at the break.
Much has been said about the dilution of rugby talent available to the Mighty Maties since the advent of the Varsity Cup and to point to this as a reason for the narrow and indeed lucky victory would be disrespectful to the boys from Constantia.
From the very outset, Stor-Age False Bay took the game to their hosts, dominating in just about every facet. Their older, battle-hardened forwards lead the charge and laid the foundations for what appeared from the outset, to be the surprise of the SLA season so far.
False Bay harried their opponents from the first whistle, all too aware that if the students settled into their expansive, fast-paced game, catch-up rugby is all they would have been allowed to play and the scoreline would have resembled the all-too familiar “thanks for coming” points difference of many previous contests.
By contrast, there was an air of complacency about the way Maties executed their game plan, as if their overwhelming history of large victories was uppermost in their minds. This appeared to be so for the opening quarter at least, until the pride of Stellenbosch University realised that their visitors were there to play rugby and were determined to return to Constantia with an SLA giant’s scalp in their kit bag.
Until then they appeared at sixes and sevens, unable to gain any front foot momentum as the Bay ferociously tackled and hassled them behind the advantage line. This observation implies that the visitors spoiled the breakdown rather than contested the ball but that was not at all the case.
Their scrum was strong, at worst matching the students. Their lineout was superior, with captain Michael Poppmeier being chief source of possession on both his team’s throw in as well as the opposition’s as he seemed to burgle their ball almost at will. In this department, lock partner Graham Knoop and flank Andrew Whittaker kept the lads in maroon on their toes as they shared in lineout receiving duties.
In the tight-loose, the Bay forwards were sublime, relentlessly driving their opponents back with Knoop and eighthman Ryan Olivier deserving mention for their power running. Indeed, when these two were not in possession, any number of the other forwards out of the 22 man squad gladly raised their hands to substitute as ball carriers.
Behind this marauding pack of hungry forwards was a backline comfortable in their skins and the roles each one played in the team. This was a feature of False Bay’s approach and performance. This was not a passionate explosion of energy from a minnow intent on chopping the big cheese into little blocks. No, this was a well-considered performance with every player taking up the challenge.
The Maties face this type of challenge every week. They are a patient team and know how to ride the storm of every team visiting their illustrious venue. They know all too well that the game is 80 minutes long and that in all likelihood the efforts and intensity of the opposition will wilt. When this happens, they normally strike with precise execution, going for the jugular and taking the game out of the reach of their feisty opposition with a couple of perfectly taken tries before their reserves can tie their bootlaces.
And strike they did. With the Bay 6-0 in the lead, wing Jaques Swart scored a typically clinical try for the home team, which was converted by flyhalf Chris Smit.
There was just a hint of fear amongst the sizeable False Bay travelling support that this could be the moment the Maties flexed their muscle, and they did indeed try to do so. It was during the last ten minutes of the first half that False Bay stood back just a little. Their forwards started to allow the Maties to cross the advantage line, which then gave them the space their dangerous backs needed to exploit.
Oddly, the Maties displayed some very uncharacteristic nerves, with wrong option taking, poor execution and sometimes simply farcical errors being made.
Fullback William Keet managed to display brilliance and brain freeze in the space of 20 minutes. He overcooked a touch kick from a penalty, robbing his locks of a five metre lineout which would have almost certainly resulted in a try. A few minutes later, he scythed through the Bay defences on about the half and was clear for a solo run to the line when he inexplicably tripped over his own feet. Then just as he was being written off, he produced a nothing less than sublime touch as he again split the defences and flipped a back pass for Swart to score.
This typified what the students were capable of but the Bay had no designs on allowing them too much of a platform to display these skills. The Maties extended their half time lead with another try, this time by Chris Smit, who converted as well.
The visitors refused to lie down and their forwards continued to take the challenge to the opponents, who they had overshadowed throughout the contest. They launched a counter attack from deep in their quarter and wing Danie Roux, all muscle and bustle, received the ball 60 metres from the opponents line. With loads of work still to do, he rounded an opponent and went through another to score close to the poles.
With a quarter of an hour to go, Knoop gave his team the lead with a drive-over try, which was converted by flyhalf Andri Claasen.
A few minutes later, with the Maties persistently on attack, the Bay suffered the first of two yellow cards in the last thirteen minutes. Playing the Maties with fifteen men is difficult enough and nigh impossible with only thirteen warriors on the pitch.
Stellenbosch University is an eighty-minute plus outfit. From the ensuing lineout which they set up off a penalty, they drove the Bay over their line and scored to take the lead through lock Charl de Villiers. It must be said that they did appear to enjoy a little leeway in interpretation of the law applicable to releasing the ball when tackled and then further enjoyed the two-man numerical advantage when the referee failed to recall the first yellow-card transgressor back for the last three minutes of the contest.
Despite the score, the Bay refused to capitulate. They struck back immediately in the same fashion that they had played all afternoon, power driving by the forwards and strong running by their backs. Centre Jason Pretorius, who delivered another fine performance, sliced through the Maties defence but was brought down less than a bootlace length from the line. His forwards piled in and carried the ball over the line, appearing to score a try. Referee Matt Kemp ruled that the ball had been held up and broke the hearts of all visitors by calling time on the contest.
It was a cruel end to a highly entertaining contest, one which everyone present agreed that False Bay should have been victorious, irrespective of allegiance.
It is most unfair to identify players who stood out for False Bay. Those already mentioned deserve it but this was a performance that everyone shared in, none letting the team down.
What is worth noting is that False Bay did not play above themselves on the day, they are a capable team with depth of talent and will be a team to watch over the duration of this year’s SLA competition.
Stor-Age False Bay have now played four matches and won two, beating SK Walmers and Kuils River and losing to the two Stellenbosch teams, Maties and Victorians.
They host their first home league match on Saturday when they face Belhar at Constantia.
First matches are at 1.30pm and the main contest starts at 4pm.