The RaboDirect Rebels ended their second Super Rugby season in Cape Town on Saturday night, succumbing 26-21 to the table-topping Stormers but showing the competition just how far they have progressed in their short history.
A blitzing start from the home side suggested the Rebels might struggle to contain the South African conference leaders, but the visitors took control of possession as the first half wore on and restricted their opponents to a 16-0 lead.
Three second-half Melbourne tries stunned the Newlands crowd and turned the game into a real contest, but further scores and excellent defence was enough to see the Stormers through to the final whistle.
Retiring captain Stirling Mortlock expressed his pride at his team’s performance, as he left the Super Rugby arena for the last time.
“I’m extremely proud of the 22 guys who took the field tonight, and not just that obviously, but the whole club,” Mortlock said.
“To play as well as we did today, to take the Stormers for a full 80, I think was a really solid effort.
“There’s another four or five guys who are retiring tonight, and we leave the club knowing that it’s in safe hands moving forward.”
The home side signalled their intentions from the outset, choosing an attacking lineout over an easy three points after winning a penalty within seconds of the kick-off.
The Rebels were able to stave off the rolling maul and several phases of attack that followed, but soon enough conceded another penalty and this time Peter Grant chose to put his team on the scoreboard.
The visitors could hardly pry the ball from the Stormers in the opening period, as their hosts attacked skilfully and relentlessly. Shifting the point of attack between their tight forward runners and evasive backline, it wasn’t long before the Rebels conceded another penalty which Grant again converted.
A try seemed inevitable, and soon enough a dog-leg in the Rebels’ defence gave centre Juan de Jongh enough room to burst through, stepping inside the last defender on his way to the line.
Grant’s conversion stretched his side’s lead to 13-0 after 14 minutes, but the Rebels showed great resolve to protect the ball and grind their way back into the match from that moment onwards.
Several good attacking opportunities presented themselves to the Rebels as the half wore on, but the Stormers’ back row gave a masterclass in defence at the breakdown, waiting for the prime moment to strike before winning either the ball or a pressure-releasing penalty.
A further field goal from Grant after the half-time siren gave his side a morale boost going into the changing rooms, but it was the Rebels who emerged the more energetically after the break.
Their deserved reward for sustained attacking pressure finally came on the 50 minute mark, when Rodney Blake burrowed over from close range following a lineout and rolling maul.
Scoring against the best defensive team in the competition appeared to lift the Rebels, and within moments of the restart they were back down in the Stormers’ 22 and threatening their line again.
The opportunity looked to have been lost when Jono Owen couldn’t hold a pass from Nick Phipps, but luckily the ball bounced backwards into the half-back’s path and space opened for him to scurry over and score.
With the gap reduced to two points following Huxley’s second conversion, the Stormers were spurred back into action, and responded immediately with another try of their own when Grant’s drifting line opened up a hole for de Jongh on the switch.
They maintained their 23-14 lead for 10 minutes, before replacement scrum half Nic Stirzaker found a rare gap in the Stormers’ defensive line. The young substitute offloaded to James Hilgendorf, who selflessly moved the ball to Cooper Vuna to guarantee the try.
The Stormers instantly picked up their intensity levels again, peppering the Rebels’ try line with 16 phases before captain Jean de Villiers was heroically held up as he attempted to score, the video referee deeming the footage inconclusive.
The home side had a penalty advantage however, and Grant took the points with their much-needed victory under threat. The Rebels went searching for the win in the final minutes, but they couldn’t keep the ball and the Stormers were happy to run down the clock and ensure they finished the season at the top of the table.