Highlanders' X-factor beats Stormers
Gavin Rich
March 09, 2018

The relentless pressure they applied in the middle stages of the game and skill of their X-factor players enabled the Highlanders to beat off a strong DHL Stormers challenge to win 33-15 at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin on Friday.

The Stormers conceded an early try but then came back strongly with a solid first half performance that really stretched the Highlanders at times. Although they went down in the end, the Stormers certainly again showed lots of evidence of improvement from their trip to New Zealand this time last year.

It was the Stormers’ 10th straight defeat in New Zealand but there are signs they are getting better, and this was another night where several individual players acquitted themselves well, none less so than young flyhalf Damian Willemse, who dazzled at times in his first performance in a Super Rugby match on New Zealand soil.

The quality of their off-load game is light years better than it was, they have line-speed on defence that was non-existent 12 months ago, their scrum is powerful and they have plenty of physicality, even in the absence of some injured big bruisers, to hurt most opposing teams if they get their bit between their teeth.

However, they still have areas of weakness that contribute to the perception that they are close to getting it right, but not quite close enough. Their lineout remains problematic, with a few balls going against the throw in the first half, and that prevented them from sustaining pressure when they needed to. At this level, one or two lineouts against the throw is one or two too many, and the Stormers are making too much of a habit of it.

The territory statistics also tell a story. In the first half the Stormers enjoyed 69 percent of the territory and, more tellingly, they spent more than five minutes in the Highlanders 22. The Highlanders spent less than a minute in the Stormers red zone in the opening 40 minutes. That tells you that the Stormers do have a problem converting field position into points, although it also needs to be noted that the Highlanders’ defence near their own line is noted for its excellence.

That brings up the point of what won and lost this game. If you were a Highlanders supporter, you’d probably say it was skill and the X-factor of the home players. Waisake Naholo ran several metres down the right flank before sending in Aaron Smith for his try, Ben Smith was stupendous in recovering and chasing down Raymond Rhule after the Stormers wing had won the ball in the air and appeared to have gone clear.

Yet Stormers supporters can point to errors that contributed, and you certainly can’t argue against the contention that Naholo should have been tackled long before he’d got into an unstoppable position. Three attempted tackles were missed, and it was a similar story later on when Rob Thomson blitzed down the wide channel.

Aaron Smith has undeniable X-factor and he was a constant thorn to the Stormers and a creative presence of much that went right for the Highlanders, while the other Smith, Ben, was perhaps unlucky not to be awarded a try on the stroke of halftime. He was adjudged to have crawled his way over the line.

Had that score been awarded it would have put the Highlanders comfortably ahead, but instead they went to the break 19-15 up. The Stormers had gone 12-5 ahead in the 17th minute when a good try scored by lock Chris van Zyl that cancelled out the fourth minute try through Liam Squire – more problems there for the Stormers in the wide channels – was added to when Willemse pounced on a loose Highlanders pass and ran 60 metres to score.

The Highlanders were back level in the 20th minute after that crashing run from Naholo that sent in Aaron Smith for his first try, but the Stormers’ territorial advantage paid off when SP Marais kicked a penalty to make it 15-12. In the last 10 minutes of the half though and the first 10 of the next one the Highlanders noticeably upped tempo and it was then that their relentless play and ability to attack from anywhere on the field effectively won the match for them.

Naholo crossed off an inside ball from Thomson before the break and then eight minutes later Luke Whitelock went over for the try that put daylight between the teams on the scoreboard for the first time.

Given the Stormers’ injury problems it wasn’t a bad effort, though they won’t be happy with a tour record that reads three matches played and three lost. The one they should have won was the opening game in Sydney.


HIGHLANDERS 33 - Tries: Liam Squire, Aaron Smith 2 and Waisake Naholo, Luke Whitelock; Conversions: Lima Sopoaga 4.
DHL STORMERS 15 – Tries: Chris van Zyl and Damian Willemse; Conversion: SP Marais; Penalty: SP Marais.

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