| THAT penalty: Why Kolisi made an astute call

Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – Remember this: just a couple of minutes earlier, the Stormers’ hitherto defiant flame appeared to have finally been doused at an emotion-charged, decently-attended Newlands.

Visitors and defending champions the Crusaders – slightly the better team in this gripping Super Rugby encounter on Saturday, if truth be told – pressed their fourth try, through right wing Sevu Reece, to go two scores clear at an advanced stage and seemingly even ensure a bonus-point victory; it would have been 4-1 in dot-downs to their favour at that point, pretty indicative of their ball-in-hand superiority.

But then television match official Marius Jonker drew referee Nic Berry’s attention to a highly debatable, perceived forward pass earlier in the move and play was instead called way back for a Stormers scrum feed near the halfway line.

Soon afterwards, and with the score remaining a tantalising 19-16 to the ‘Saders, the hosts received a penalty that was both attractively kickable for goal (for the draw) or for an attacking lineout (the win chance) … exactly the kind of flashpoint, like an emergency landing for a pilot, when a captain truly earns his stripes for decision-making on the spur of the dramatic moment.

Amid a banshee-like din from the split-loyalties crowd, surprisingly animated (near-mutinous?) “advice” to poor Siya Kolisi in both ears from his team-mates and presumably no lack of feedback from the coaching booth, either, the dual franchise and national leader made the call – with admirably firm conviction, too – for Jean-Luc du Plessis to boot the penalty and ensure a 19-19 share of the spoils, which the substitute flyhalf duly did immediately preceding the final whistle.

Considering that this was anything but a Barbarians-style affair – and played with something closer to Test-match intensity and physicality – ensuring a stalemate, rather than risking a lineout move that might just have gone awry for a debilitating seventh Stormers reverse of the season, did seem, I suggest, a wise enough course of action.

There is a certain moral satisfaction, after all, to any team in Super Rugby these days preventing the mighty, currently runaway Cantabrians from winning a match, and this made the Capetonians the second South African outfit – after the Sharks in even more commendable, faraway Christchurch – to hold them to all-square in the space of just over two weeks.

Yes, the Stormers would have been especially gleeful with all four points if possible, as they remain the bottom-placed side in the tense SA conference, three points adrift of the Sharks.

But they also still ended the weekend only six points shy of the group-leading Bulls, and bear in mind that the side from Pretoria have three further overseas matches among their four remaining ordinary-season assignments, whereas the Stormers contrastingly boast three of their four at Newlands (Highlanders next weekend, plus Sunwolves and Sharks, with a trip to Johannesburg to play the Lions somewhere in between).

In short, they are notably still at the races, especially when you consider in addition that the Lions, a fairly lofty sixth overall so comfortably in the playoffs zone, are only four log points better as things stand.

Kolisi also earned the post-game backing of rival captain Sam Whitelock for taking the safer option; the veteran All Black described it as a “smart move” rather than “rolling the dice” with a lineout: let’s face it, the Crusaders aren’t the worst at defending their own line vigorously when necessary.

Popular former Springbok and Western Province tighthead prop Keith Andrews, always renowned for adherence to team values, said on Twitter that it was “upsetting” to notice team-mates arguing with their own skipper – hopefully there will be suitable contrition from various parties in the camp in their analysis of the game with the dust firmly settled.

When they reconvene at training for the next challenge of the Highlanders, too, any Stormers players who were vehemently at odds with their leader’s final-minute choice would do well to reflect on the fact that general confidence levels ought to be a lot higher going into next Saturday than they would have been off another loss.

The Stormers, for all their pronounced, ongoing limitations on attack, had put in a gallant shift – especially in the engine room, where Pieter-Steph du Toit was filled with consistent high energy and Kolisi had brilliant moments – against great opponents. Seizing “something” out of the contest was a significant plus for them.

The weekend was an unusually productive one for the SA conference all round, with no losses to show: wins for the Bulls, Jaguares (both abroad, and against good opponents) and Lions to go with the Newlands stalemate.

Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):

Friday: Chiefs v Reds, 09:35; Brumbies v Bulls, 11:45. Saturday: Sunwolves v Rebels, 07:15; Crusaders v Blues, 09:35; Waratahs v Jaguares, 11:45; Stormers v Highlanders, 15:05; Sharks v Lions, 17:15. Bye: Hurricanes.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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