The Cheetahs scored two tries in the final five minutes to snatch a 34-34 draw against the Sharks in Bloemfontein and book a place in the Currie Cup semi-finals. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
With just two log points separating the teams coming into their final pool fixture, the clash effectively served as a ‘quarter-final’ in a battle for the only remaining play-off berth.
The Sharks looked to have the game won – and a place in the knockout stage secure – when they took a 14-point lead with just 10 minutes left to play. They then fell asleep and allowed the Cheetahs to complete an incredible comeback.
A breakout try to Ryno Benjamin and then another from replacement Gerhard Olivier, with Niel Marais knocking over the conversions, enabled the Cheetahs to clinch a draw that was good enough to secure their semi-final spot.
With that hard-fought result, the Cheetahs have won a date with the Lions next weekend, while after an up-and-down season, the woeful Sharks will be left wondering what could have been after experiencing the ignominy of missing out on a knockout place.
The Sharks struck first with an early penalty to flyhalf Joe Pietersen, but it would be the Cheetahs who carved open the visitors’ defence in the 13th minute, with Benjamin ultimately diving over to score after a 50m breakout.
The Sharks’ forwards created the next bit of try-scoring magic when prop Gerhard Engelbrecht drew the defence and offloaded to hooker Franco Marais, who went on a busting run before putting flanker Etienne Oosthuizen away for an outstanding try.
However, the Sharks’ defence once again looked vulnerable in the first half, and a sniping half-break from Cheetahs scrumhalf Shaun Venter provided the space for flanker Boom Prinsloo to burst onto the ball and score alongside the posts.
That effort took the Cheetahs out to a 14-8 lead, and yet it could have been so much more, with flyhalf Sias Ebersohn missing four penalties on a breezy afternoon in Bloemfontein. Pietersen, to be fair though, also had his troubles in front of poles.
The Sharks made the hosts pay when André Esterhuizen pounced on a turnover and showed great strength to get the ball away to scrumhalf flyer Cobus Reinach, who scooted over to cut the deficit to one point in the 37th minute.
However, Ebersohn finally knocked over his first penalty right in front of the posts with the final play of the half, enabling the Cheetahs to open up a 17-13 lead.
Despite just four points separating the sides at the break, the half-time stats told a different story, with the Cheetahs enjoying 64% of possession, while the Sharks had missed 12 missed tackles and conceded eight penalties.
So, although they were fortunate to still be in the fight heading in the second half, three minutes after the restart they were back in the lead after Pietersen showed all his experience to create a superb try for Paul Jordaan.
Pietersen and Ebersohn traded a penalty each before the hour mark, with the Sharks holding onto their tenuous one-point advantage.
A massive moment came when Cheetahs prop Luan de Bruin was yellow-carded for a cynical offence with the Sharks on attack, and Pietersen duly knocked over three more penalty points.
The Sharks then exploited their one-man advantage as Odwa Ndungane broke away on the right-hand touchline before making an inside pass to young Garth April to score under the posts.
Suddenly the Durbanites had an 11-point buffer, which Pietersen extended with a fourth penalty in the 70th minute as the Sharks continued to exert their control on the match.
However, then came the Cheetahs' moments of magic as the home side came back to clinch an incredible draw.
Sharks – Tries: Etienne Oosthuizen, Cobus Reinach, Paul Jordaan, Garth April. Conversion: Joe Pietersen. Penalties: Pietersen (4).
Free State Cheetahs – Tries: Ryno Benjamin (2), Boom Prinsloo, Gerhard Olivier. Conversions: Sias Ebersohn (2), Niel Marais (2). Penalties: Ebersohn (2).
Free State Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Ryno Benjamin, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Boom Prinsloo, 5 Francois Uys (c), 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Luan de Bruin, 2 Jacques du Toit, 1 BG Uys.
Subs: 16 Neil Rautenbach, 17 Teunis Nieuwoudt, 18 Reniel Hugo, 19 Freddy Ngoza, 20 Gerhard Olivier, 21 Ruan van Rensburg, 22 Niel Marais, 23 AJ Coertzen, 24 Willem Serfontein.
Sharks – 15 Garth April , 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 André Esterhuizen, 11 S’bura Sithole, 10 Joe Pietersen, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Etienne Oosthuizen, 6 Francois Kleinhans, 5 Marco Wentzel (c), 4 Dave McDuling, 3 Gerhard Engelbrecht, 2 Franco Marais, 1 Thomas du Toit.
Subs: 16 Monde Hadebe, 17 Mzamo Majola, 18 Christiaan de Bruin, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Michael Claassens, 21 Heimar Williams, 22 Waylon Murray.
Photo: Charl Devenish/Gallo Images