United Rugby Championship: Stormers seal fifth successive win over Bulls, Connacht thrash Zebre and Sharks see off Lions
The Stormers stayed in touch with the United Rugby Championship leaders Leinster after clinching a hard-fought 23-19 triumph over the Bulls in their South African derby in Pretoria on Saturday.
As the scoreline suggests, the clash between last season’s finalists was a tense affair, but the Stormers held on for the win – their fifth successive one over their arch-rivals – to claim the spoils.
Stormers fly-half Manie Libbok and Bulls pivot Chris Smith came into this encounter as the tournament’s two leading point-scorers and they took centre stage with the boot early on.
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Their efforts left the Bulls 12-3 ahead after 24 minutes, although the home side’s advantage could have been greater had it not been for some desperate last-ditch defending from Stormers captain Deon Fourie to haul back Cornal Hendricks as he looked certain to race over.
At the other end, the Stormers had shown little as an attacking force themselves, but that all changed in the 28th minute when they scored the game’s opening try.
Scrum-half Herschel Jantjies floated a long pass out to the left wing, where the unmarked number eight Marcel Theunissen had a clear run to the line. There was a check for a forward pass in the build-up, but the TMO saw no offence, and the try was allowed to stand.
Libbok added the extras with a superb touchline conversion, and the Springbok was also on target in the final minute of the half as the Stormers went ahead for the first time at 13-12, a lead they held at the break.
The Bulls will have been disappointed to have trailed at half-time, having held the upper hand for much of the first half, but they found themselves on the back foot at the start of the second period as the Stormers pushed for more points under the Pretoria rain.
They were rewarded in the 52nd minute when Junior Pokomela finished off a fine counter-attack.
Dan du Plessis looked in a spot of bother when he raced back to pick up a punt clear, but he evaded two tackles before sending Suleiman Hartzenberg away, and when Theunissen was finally hauled down, the Stormers were only five yards short.
The visitors would not be denied, though and, following several attempted drives from close to the line, Pokomela was able to touch down, with Libbok adding another fine conversion from out wide.
With their tails up, the Stormers appeared set to add to their tally, and the Bulls suffered a further setback when full-back David Kriel was sent to the sin-bin for a deliberate knock-on as Neethling Fouche looked to put Du Plessis in down the left.
Despite being down to 14 men and under the cosh, however, the Bulls refused to give in, and they got back into the contest when a superb offload by Elrigh Louw sent Sbu Nkosi flying in, with Morne Steyn’s conversion making it a one-point game.
Libbok’s drop-goal in the 72nd minute further extended the Stormers’ lead and the visitors were able to withstand a late onslaught from the Bulls to claim a nail-biting victory.
Connacht get the better of Zebre
Connacht survived a scare as they held off a second-half fightback by Zebre to emerge 57-34 winners from their URC clash in Parma.
The Irish province appeared to be cruising to a routine victory as they led 38-13 when wing Diarmuid Kilgallen went over in the 45th minute, but Zebre burst into life, inspired by their fly-half Tiff Eden to plunder three rapid tries.
Hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin completed an early hat-trick as Connacht found success through their maul, and it was the pack who ended the home uprising by engineering the try that placed them back in control before the floodgates opened late on.
It was as early as the sixth minute that Connacht made their presence felt at the maul when Tierney-Martin completed the line-out drive.
Eden rifled over his second penalty, and Zebre showed signs of endeavour as they broke across the halfway line, capitalising on the scrappy nature of the opening quarter.
Tierney-Martin claimed a second maul try with backs, this time joining in as Connacht again looked to their set-piece to make the breakthrough.
The 23-year-old front row clinched his hat-trick inside the half-hour mark as the Irish side tightened the screw using a weapon Zebre were unable to contain.
Tiernan O’Halloran and Simone Gesi exchanged tries as the game opened up, but Connacht started to pull clear as O’Halloran selflessly sent scrum-half Caolin Blade over.
Kilgallen broke two tackles to get the visitors off to a try-scoring start to the second half, but Zebre hit back immediately through Erich Cronje as the match continued to produce tries at both ends.
Giampietro Ribaldi was absolved of illegally clearing out Conor Oliver, and the Italian team were the next to score when Eden’s sleight of hand saw lock Josh Furno surge over.
Eden’s silky hands and movement then set Gesi up for his second, and suddenly, Zebre trailed just 38-34.
But Connacht returned to their maul and were rewarded when Adam Byrne went over from close range before Kieran Marmion, and Colm de Buitlear ran in tries at the death.
Sharks’ second half charge sees off Lions
A strong second-half performance from the Sharks guided them to a 29-7 win over the Lions in URC’s early South African derby in Johannesburg.
The story of a first half that finished 7-7 was the Lions’ inability to capitalise on their dominance of territory and possession as fly-half Gianni Lombard missed three routine shots at goal.
The hosts at least hit back, after a classy individual score by Sharks pivot Curwin Bosch, when captain Marius Louw finished under the posts, but the visitors from Durban took control after the interval.
Helped by their superior kicking game and turnover success, they ground down the South African Shield’s bottom-placed side, who lacked the firepower needed to finish their try-scoring opportunities.
Wing Thaakir Abrahams and substitute hooker Fez Mbatha added further tries, with the Sharks’ maul emerging as a particularly effective weapon.
Scrum-half Grant Williams secured the bonus point in the 74th minute, showing his pace to touch down Bosch’s grubber.
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