The Free State Cheetahs began the defence of their Currie Cup crown with a 47-12 bonus-point win against the Sharks in Bloemfontein on Friday. MARIETTE ADAMS reports.
In a scrappy, helter-skelter tournament opener, a full-strength Cheetahs team was made to work for the result against a young but gutsy Sharks outfit missing all of its Super Rugby players.
Leading by 10 at the break, the Cheetahs needed a surging second-half performance to overcome the Sharks.
And considering that most other teams will be strengthened at the conclusion of Super Rugby, while the Cheetahs will be weakened midway through the tournament when their senior side starts competing in the proposed Pro14 in September, they’ll take as many smash-and-grab wins while they have the manpower.
With the exception of a couple of shaky lineout feeds, the Cheetahs' powerful set piece and physical defence laid the foundation for their victory. There were also encouraging signs on attack for the hosts, with fullback Clayton Blommetjies and wing Rosco Speckman emerging as the main threats.
Marais opened the scoring for the Cheetahs with a penalty, and that lead was extended when Uzair Cassiem bashed his way over the line after some dazzling footwork by Blommetjies in the build-up.
In the first minute of the second quarter, the Sharks turned defence into offence when turnover possession in their half led to a try. In a beautiful movement that saw Keegan Daniel, Jacques Vermeulen, Hyron Andrews and Odwa Ndungane handle the ball, the Sharks created an overlap and centre S’bura Sithole finished off with a try in the right-hand corner.
Not to be outdone, Free State responded with an equally superb try, with the ball going through nine pairs of hands before captain Francois Venter stretched over to score. Leading 17-10, the Cheetahs were reduced to 14 players when Cassiem received a yellow card for a cynical infringement, but the Sharks were unable to capitalise. With men out wide, Sithole decided to go direct instead, but Venter and Niel Jordaan intelligently forced a turnover by holding him up off the ground and creating a maul.
Another six points went begging for the visitors with flyhalf Benhard Janse van Rensburg skewing penalties either side of the break. And from there, the game opened up and the Cheetahs ran riot. Marais slotted two penalties for a 16-point advantage and then the tries followed.
Pinning the Sharks back inside their half, courtesy of excellent tactical kicking and accurate kicks for touch, they exerted so much pressure on the Sharks that it was impossible for them to stand up defensively.
Replacement hooker Reinach Venter, wing Raymond Rhule and centre William Small-Smith crashed over for the Cheetahs, and while the Sharks did manage to dot down through debutant Bandise Ndlovu, they failed to see out the game without conceding a sixth try. This time Zee Mkhabela was on the end of the final pass to cap off a super evening for the Cheetahs.
Free State Cheetahs – Tries: Uzair Cassiem, Francois Venter, Reinach Venter, Raymond Rule, William Small-Smith, Zee Mkhabela. Conversions: Niel Marais (4). Penalties: Marais (3).
Sharks – Tries: S’bura Sithole, Bandise Ndlovu. Conversion: Benhard Janse van Rensburg.
Free State Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Rosco Speckman, 13 Francois Venter, 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Niel Jordaan, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Aranos Coetzee, 2 Joseph Dweba, 1 Charles Marais.
Subs: 16 Ox Nche, 17 Reinach Venter, 18 Rynier Bernado, 19 Chris Dry, 20 Zee Mkhabela, 21 JW Jonker. 22 Cecil Afrika.
Sharks – 15 Courtney Winnaar, 14 Odwa Ndungane, 13 S’bura Sithole, 12 Marius Louw, 11 Ilunga Mukendi, 10 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 9 Cameron Wright, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 6 Khaya Majola, 5 Hyron Andrews, 4 Wian Vosloo, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Kerron van Vuuren, 1 Mzamo Majola.
Subs: 16 Andy du Plessis, 17 Thierry Kounga, 18 Tyler Paul, 19 Bandisa Ndlovu, 20 Rowan Gouws, 21 Brandon Bailing, 22 Inny-Christian Radebe.
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images