Stormers strike late to break Ulster hearts in URC semi-final

The Stormers are set to host an all-South African URC final.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Stormers 17 
Ulster 15 

Jon Cardinelli reports from the Cape Town Stadium

THE FAIRYTALE CONTINUES for John Dobson’s Stormers, who racked up their 10th successive win on Saturday to qualify for the inaugural United Rugby Championship final.

At the start of the season, the Stormers were hamstrung by financial and administrative problems. Few if any gave the Cape-based side a chance of advancing to the URC playoffs, let alone challenging for the title.

And yet, here we are, some nine months later, with the Stormers set to host an all-South African URC final. Whisper it, but the Stormers will go into next week’s decider against the Bulls as favourites to lift the trophy.

john-cooney Source: Steve Haag/INPHO

The result at the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday capped a groundbreaking weekend for South African rugby. Less than 24 hours after the Bulls completed one of the great rugby heists in Dublin – securing South Africa’s first club win on Irish soil in the process – the Stormers pipped Ulster via a Manie Libbok conversion after the hooter.

Ulster came into this clash with a point to prove – having lost to the Stormers in controversial circumstances back in April. Following that defeat, a patently upset coach Dan McFarland said that Ulster were the better team.

The semi-final clash provided Ulster with the opportunity to set the record straight. Ahead of the match, Dobson talked up Ulster’s strengths at the maul and in the air. The Stormers coach felt that Ulster would provide the Cape side with its toughest tactical test yet.

The Stormers threw the first significant punch of the bout when they scored a try via the rolling maul in the fourth minute. Referee Mike Adamson initially awarded a penalty try, but subsequently awarded the try to hooker JJ Kotze.

The hosts set another solid platform deep in Ulster territory, and shaped to move the ball to the openside. Evan Roos swept to the short side and found Herschel Jantjies in space on the touchline. The Stormers scrumhalf returned the ball to the No 8, who touched down to give his side a 10-0 lead.

Ulster’s hit back immediately, scoring via Rob Baloucoune in the right-hand corner. The partisan crowd at the Cape Town Stadium felt that the final pass to Baloucoune had travelled forward, and proceeded to boo John Cooney as he lined up the conversion. The scrumhalf slipped on his approach to the tee, and the attempt drifted wide.

But the momentum was with Ulster in the final stages of the half. Stewart Moore scored after Ulster found more space in the wide channels, and this time Cooney made no mistake with the conversion.

Ulster began to execute their aerial kicking game to devastating effect. Their defence repelled wave after wave of Stormers’ attack, and claimed a minor victory after Libbok slipped into the pocket and sent a drop-goal attempt wide.

Cooney slotted a penalty right on the hooter to give his side a 15-10 lead at half-time. As was the case in the league fixture between these sides, Ulster appeared to be growing stronger as the contest progressed.

The visitors moved up a gear in the third quarter. They started to breach the Stormers defence with ease, and may have scored twice if not for a couple of untimely errors.

Ulster turned down a shot at goal in favour of a lineout drive and try. The Stormers managed to force the turnover, however, and exit their half.

At the other end of the field, the Stormers let a golden opportunity slip when they turned down a penalty in front of the poles. Libbok then proceeded to miss touch.

The game appeared to be Ulster’s to lose after the Stormers were sanctioned for foul play. Replacement lock Adré Smith was shown a red card in the 71st minute after he made contact with the face of an Ulster player.

Somehow the hosts managed to hit back and win themselves a penalty in Ulster’s 22. Another maul culminated in another turnover, though.

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And still the Stormers kept coming. The final hooter sounded, and Adamson awarded the hosts yet another penalty in front of the posts.

The 14-man side opted for a scrum. A long pass to an unmarked Warrick Gelant resulted in a five-pointer in the left-hand corner and brought the crowd to its feet.

With the scores locked at 15-15, Libbok was left with a difficult conversion to win the game.

Libbok had missed two earlier kicks, and had made a number of mistakes in general play. With everything on the line, however, he held his nerve to bisect the uprights – and earn his team a place in the URC final.

Stormers scorers: Tries: JJ Kotze, Evan Roos, Warrick Gelant Conversions: Manie Libbok [1 from 3]

Ulster scorers: Tries: Rob Baloucoune, Stewart Moore Conversions: John Cooney [1 from 2] Penalties: John Cooney [1 from 1]

STORMERS: 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.

Referee: Mike Adamson [SRU].

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Jon Cardinelli

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