The Western Stormers struggled through another poor second-half performance to beat the New South Wales Waratahs 19-13 and move to the top of the Super 15 log on Saturday.
Tries by Joe Pietersen and Tiaan Liebenberg helped open a 16-3 halftime lead at Newlands for the Stormers, who dominated the first half, but then slipped away in the second and nearly allowed the desperate Waratahs to steal the game.
The Waratahs replied with a score by center Rob Horne in the 43rd minute and forced the Stormers onto the back foot for much of the final 40, as scrumhalf Brendan McKibbin kicked the visitors to within three points.
A Peter Grant penalty provided the only points after halftime for the Stormers and the home team relied on stubborn defense to close out victory as steady rain fell in the late stages.
Despite shaky second-half showings, the Cape Town team — which is chasing a first Super Rugby title — has won four straight games and 10 out of 11 to take over from the Northern Bulls at the top of the South African conference. The Stormers also lead the overall standings, having won one more game than the Waikato Chiefs.
The Waratahs have lost four in a row and lie 14 points off the top six, and the playoffs.
“It was a tough game of rugby,” Stormers coach Allister Coetzee said. “We must give the Stormers side credit for grinding out wins. I know a lot of people say we have a bit of a slump in the second half.”
McKibbin put the Waratahs ahead in the 10th with a penalty, but the Australian side could not score again in the opening half as the Stormers had all the territory and possession.
The Waratahs did lift themselves after Horne’s score, but could not break down the Stormers again.
“We made things difficult for ourselves in the first half and couldn’t claw it back. We’re very disappointed with that,” skipper Rocky Elsom said. “We needed a win. We desperately wanted a win.”
Stormers fullback Pietersen dived over in the left corner in the 17th minute after a scything break by wing Gio Aplon. The ball was moved left from the ruck and even though a pass went through Bryan Habana’s hands, Pietersen latched onto it and rounded the cover defense.
Pietersen extended the lead to 8-3 with a 23rd-minute penalty, and hooker Liebenberg just squeezed home in the right corner with a full-length dive in the 33rd after fellow forward Eben Etzebeth sent him clear.
Replacement forward Kane Douglas broke through the Stormers’ midfield at the start of the second half and Horne popped up on the left wing to score a try and give the Waratahs hope.
McKibbin landed the conversion from out wide and a penalty four minutes later, as the Waratahs scored 10 points in seven minutes at the start of the half to put themselves back in touch.
However, the Stormers, who have relied on their defense to close out many games this season after falling away, did not concede any points in the final 33 minutes.
Grant made it 19-13 in the 50th minute and the Stormers held the Waratahs off after that, with both teams struggling to put meaningful attacks together and often kicking aimlessly.
“I think we’re the first to admit we haven’t been playing our best rugby and we have to improve in some areas,” Stormers captain Jean de Villiers said. “I think we did improve in some areas tonight.”
The Stormers have South African derbies away to the Coastal Sharks and the Bulls before the Super 15 breaks for June internationals, while New South Wales visits the Cheetahs and is at home to the Wellington Hurricanes as it chases a long-awaited win.