Cheetahs charge to title

Niel Marais kicked 21 points to guide the Free State Cheetahs to a 36-16 win over the Blue Bulls and a first Currie Cup title in nine years. JON CARDINELLI reports.

The 2016 Currie Cup climaxed in fairytale fashion for coach Franco Smith and his Cheetahs charges in Bloemfontein on Saturday. After winning all eight of their league matches, and after smashing the Golden Lions – the 2015 champions – in the semi-final, the Cheetahs showed their temperament and tenacity to claim a deserved victory against the Bulls in the decider.

Marais kicked seven penalties to set a new record for the most three-pointers in a Currie Cup final. The Cheetahs flyhalf’s contribution ensured that the hosts claimed reward for their territorial dominance. Only one of his attempts failed to find its mark.

But to say that Marais was solely responsible for the result would be grossly inaccurate. The Cheetahs fired as a unit from minute one to 80. While there were moments where their execution let them down, they endeavoured to play a smart tactical game. They carried the ball strongly, but ensured that most of the contest took place deep in the opposition’s half.

Had the Cheetahs made more of their early chances, they would have gone to the break with a commanding lead. As it was, they did enough to boss the Bulls at the collisions – with Uzair Cassiem and Tier Schoeman making a significant impact – and drive the visitors back via the booming boot of Clayton Blommetjies. Raymond Rhule and Sergeal Petersen broke the line on several occasions, but could not find a support runner for the finish.

The Bulls were also reduced to 14 men in the eighth minute when Jamba Ulengo killed the ball inside his own 22m area. While the Cheetahs went into half-time with a 18-9 lead, there was a feeling that they had let the Bulls off to an extent. The visitors were still in the contest.

Marais kicked his seventh penalty in the 53rd minute to take the Cheetahs 12 points clear of the Bulls. Ten minutes later, Petersen conjured up a piece of magic that allowed the hosts to all but secure the result.

The Bulls were on the attack, and looked to have the Cheetahs stretched. Petersen rushed up and completed the interception.

The winger slowed down when reaching the Bulls 22m area and looked for support. This time, the Cheetahs did well to recycle the ball and ensure that it reached the men on the outside. Captain Francois Venter delivered the final pass to Blommetjies, who finished in spectacular fashion.

The Bulls scored their first try through replacement scrumhalf Piet van Zyl in the 74th minute. This was cancelled out, however, when the Cheetahs launched a counter-attack and Petersen crossed for a try of his own.

Free State Cheetahs – Tries: Clayton Blommetjies, Sergeal Petersen. Conversion: Fred Zeilinga. Penalties: Niel Marais (7), Zeilinga.
Blue Bulls – Try: Piet van Zyl. Conversion: Joshua Stander. Penalties: Tian Schoeman (3).

Free State Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 Nico Lee, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Tier Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Aranos Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais.
Subs: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Armandt Koster, 19 Henco Venter, 20 Tian Meyer, 21 Fred Zeilinga, 22 Rayno Benjamin, 23 Conraad van Vuuren.

Blue Bulls – 15 Ulrich Beyers, 14 Travis Ismaiel, 13 Dries Swanepoel, 12 Burger Odendaal, 11 Jamba Ulengo, 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Rudy Paige, 8 Arno Botha (c), 7 Jannes Kirsten, 6 Roelof Smit, 5 Marvin Orie, 4 Jason Jenkins, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Jaco Visagie, 1 Lizo Gqoboka.
Subs: 16 Bandise Maku, 17 Martin Dreyer, 18 Pierre Schoeman, 19 Nic de Jager, 20 Hanro Liebenberg, 21 Piet van Zyl, 22 Joshua Stander, 23 Bjorn Basson.

Photo: Anne Laing/HM Images

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Jon Cardinelli