The final hooter had gone as Stormers flyhalf Manie Libbok went through his methodical kicking routine to convert Andre-Hugo Venter’s 79th-minute try. The kick was up against the right touchline thanks to a mauling try that had brought the Stormers to within a point of defending European champions La Rochelle.
Libbok did not flinch. If thoughts of some mediocre kicking displays at Rugby World Cup 2023 entered his mind, he pushed them away. He struck the kick sweetly and even before the flags went up, his arms shot up in triumph.
It gave the Stormers a 21-20 win to keep them alive in the European Champions Cup while putting La Rochelle’s title defence in jeopardy after their second loss in as many weeks.
The Stormers, playing at Cape Town Stadium in Green Point for the first time this season, did not lead until the moment Libbok’s kick went over. Despite suffering some difficult periods in the match, the Stormers’ tenacity and ability to stay in the contest allowed them to get over the line.
The French giants – both literally, with behemoth lock Will Skelton and prop Uini Atonio up front, and metaphorically, with two European titles to their name – appeared to have the points in the bag.
A 75th-minute try, scored and converted by flyhalf Antoine Hastoy, appeared to put the result beyond doubt as La Rochelle led 27-14.
But just before the restart, referee Christophe Ridley was alerted to a head-high hit by prop Joel Sclavi on Venter. It was a yellow card and the try chalked off. La Rochelle still led 20-14 but the Stormers had an unexpected lifeline, and they made the most of it. It’s a sign of a good side.
If La Rochelle captain Skelton was bitter about it, he hid it well. “That was a decision the officials made and we can do nothing about it,” he said. “But we still had the lead and we didn’t defend the final maul well enough. That’s the reality.”
Skelton’s assessment was accurate, even if the sight of coach Ronan O’Gara throwing a water bottle and screaming at officials was unedifying.
La Rochelle failed to defend their line when it mattered most. In the cold light of day their composure cracked. O’Gara, unsurprisingly and disappointingly,
…. to be continued
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