The point of the Stormers one point win against the Sharks was about humility, not just for Stormers supporters but for all South Africans, writes Mark Keohane.
It was the most appropriate ending to the rugby year in South Africa. The Stormers won 16-15 against the Sharks at the DHL Stadium in Cape Town to conclude competitive rugby in South Africa in 2023. The last game, played on the 30th December, was symbolic because it was a reminder of the most incredible year for South African rugby, but equally a reminder of the fine margins between cheers and jeers, between awe and angst and between what constitutes a winner and a loser.
In rugby, as with every sport, the only statistic that matters is the final score. Who gets the ‘W’? And to get that ‘W’ you only need one more point. It is easier said than appreciated and most certainly easier appreciated than accepted.
Lose by a point and the world could end. Win by a point and the world has just started to blossom.
Fine margins, but a point in emotion is worth 12 000 miles in distance. The two are that disconnected in the moment of a final whistle.
The Springboks won all their World Cup play-off matches by a point. France, England and New Zealand suffered. But for a moment against France, the Springboks story would never have happened. Humility in the result and humility in the response. It is one thing to win by 20; quite another to have one more point.
With on-field response comes respect: The Boks at the World Cup earned that respect because each opponent acknowledged that, somehow, they found a way to win. It is the trademark of a special group of players and coaches.
The Stormers, at Cape Town’s DHL Stadium in December, found a way to win against Europe and French giants La Rochelle (by a point), against the in-form Bulls (by less than a converted try) and against a desperate Sharks (by a point).
The Sharks arrived in Cape Town, with one win from seven in the league, only speaking about wanting to earn respect. They did that in spades and this squad is better than one league win. Expect bigger things from them in 2024, especially as John Plumtree settles again in South Africa from New Zealand, adjusts to the SA mindset and appreciates the DNA of his players. This is not New Zealand, these aren’t the Hurricanes and those internationals in his squad are not the All Blacks. The two countries, so rich in rugby tradition, have a different DNA. In Cape Town on Saturday night we saw a Sharks team being true to their DNA and not necessarily the fantasy of how the game should be played.
The Stormers won and there will always be debate about how they won. One thing I appreciate is that they won as champions do; they found a way.
They were a player down for 10 of the last 15 minutes, relinquished the lead for the first time on 65 minutes and immediately regained it with a Manie Libbok penalty. They then defended as if this was the final and they played the final six minutes on the Sharks try line.
They won several kickable penalties in that six minute period and refused to kick the three points and release the squeeze of try line pressure on the Sharks. One point or four, the final minutes of this match had to be played near the Sharks try line if the Stormers were to win. Their leadership recognised this.
They refused to create the crowd illusion that four points wins it and then spend the final three minutes defending their line to win the match.
It showed maturity from the Stormers, who also profited from a superior substitutes’ bench.
It was a big win, in the context of the month, and the league positioning, but again it was an advertisement for the quality of rugby in South Africa.
Nearly 40 000 made it to the DHL Stadium for a second successive Saturday, amid Christmas and New Year celebrations and the financial strain that comes with the festive season. It said everything about the love for the game in the Western Province and the local support for the likes of the Bulls and Sharks.
Each time these SA teams play, South African rugby wins, even if one set of provincial supporters loses on the night.
It is on nights like this that the respect for both teams must win over a result, and that humility must smash arrogance.
And thank you.