New Zealand visitors Canterbury Crusaders survived a late Western Stormers onslaught to win a Super 15 thriller 19-14 at Newlands on Saturday.
Stormers built an early 11-point lead only to trail 13-11 at halftime and five points separated the sides entering the closing stages of a second half during which South African No. 8 Duane Vermeulen was sin-binned.
The Cape Town team threw everything at the Crusaders, but one brave tackle after another kept them at bay and the game ended when fullback Joe Pietersen was bundled into touch tantalizingly close to the try-line.
Victory lifted Crusaders to fifth place on the combined table and second on the New Zealand conference standings behind title-holders Waikato Chiefs.
Although lacking unavailable Dan Carter, resting Richie McCaw and injured Israel Dagg and Kieran Read and losing prop Owen Franks early on, Crusaders once again excelled at Newlands with a fifth triumph in 10 visits.
Skipper George Whitelock said little in a post-match interview with his shy smile revealing the delight at a courageous team effort.
“Pretty good,” was his summary of the massive defensive effort to keep out the Stormers at the finish and “pretty special” was his reaction to the third win in a row this season over South African opponents.
“We went to bed after taking an 11-point lead,” Stormers captain Jean de Villiers said. “Commitment was lacking at times and we struggled at some of the set phases.”
The set phase where the Stormers battled most was the line-outs as they lost six, including a crucial one deep in Crusaders territory with time running out.
Pietersen kicked penalties either side of a try by flank Siya Kolisi off a driving maul to give the Stormers an 11-0 lead, but a dazzling run from his own half by fullback Tom Marshall triggered the Crusaders’ comeback.
When Marshall was eventually dragged to the turf, the move continued and ended with flank Matt Todd bursting through for a try which flyhalf Tyler Bleyendaal converted before adding two first half penalties.
Bleyendaal slotted two penalties and Pietersen one in a second half dominated for long spells by the Crusaders before the Stormers camped inside their opponent’s half during the closing stages without scoring.
CHEETAHS V REBELS
Central Cheetahs won four consecutive Super Rugby matches for only the second time when they defeated Australian visitors Melbourne Rebels 34-16 on Saturday.
The Bloemfontein franchise went into the break 10-6 ahead after wasting several try scoring chances, but ran in four second half tries for a bonus-point triumph.
Victory lifted Cheetahs five places to fifth on the combined standings while the Rebels stayed third last after five consecutive losses.
Once Raymond Rhule crossed for the second Cheetahs try on 52 minutes, there was little doubt the South Africans were heading for four victories in a row.
Rebels showed a big improvement after a 64-7 hiding from the Sharks in Durban last weekend and the sending home of Kurtley Beale and Cooper Vuna following a team bus incident in which captain and No. 8 Gareth Delve was hit.
Cheetahs flyhalf Burton Francis kicked an early penalty and Rebels fullback James O’Connor landed two to give his side the lead for the only time.
Cheetahs’ pressure paid off four minutes before halftime when Hennie Daniller dived over and Francis converted to give the Bloemfontein outfit a four-point advantage.