The Free State Cheetahs overturned an 18-point deficit to secure a thrilling 37-29 victory over the Golden Lions in Bloemfontein on Thursday night. CRAIG LEWIS reports.
It’s a sixth successive win for the Cheetahs that sees them open up a virtually unassailable nine-point lead at the top of the Currie Cup standings.
With the Bloemfontein-based side set to finish their campaign with games against the Pumas and Griquas, they now look assured of earning the right to home-ground advantage throughout the playoffs.
For the fifth-placed Lions, it's a considerable setback to their playoff aspirations, with just games against the EP Kings and the Sharks left for them to work their way back into the top four.
While the Cheetahs came away with an important win, they were guilty of ill-discipline early on, conceding four penalties in the opening 15 minutes, three of which were in kicking range, enabling Lions flyhalf Jaco van der Walt to open up a handy 9-0 lead.
And although it seemed as if the Lions had surrendered their ascendancy when Van der Walt was sent to the sin bin for repeated infringements in the 16th minute, the Cheetahs returned the ‘favour’ when Clayton Blommetjies was also shown a yellow card almost immediately after.
Nevertheless, the hosts would be the first to cross the tryline when Raymond Rhule produced a strong hand-off to power past Andries Coetzee and score just after the quarter-hour mark.
Yet, two moments of Rohan Janse van Rensburg magic then swung momentum back in favour of the Lions, with the burly centre first running a good line to score next to the posts, while he then created a try for Robbie Coetzee after producing a typically abrasive break.
That double strike sent the Lions into a commanding 26-8 lead, but the Cheetahs importantly struck back just before the break when Niel Marais put through a well-weighted grubber for lock Reniel Hugo to collect and score.
The Cheetahs were then provided another lifeline when Lions No 8 Fabian Booysen conceded a cynical breakdown offence and was sent to the sin bin in the 48th minute.
And with the Cheetahs enjoying some 82% of possession in the third quarter, they made the Lions pay with tries to Shaun Venter and Rayno Benjamin, suddenly sending the hosts into a one-point lead.
It remained that way heading into the final 15 minutes as Marais and Van der Walt traded penalties, but the result was finally sealed when replacement scrumhalf Tian Meyer went over to score in the 79th minute.
Free State Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Rayno Benjamin, 13 Nico Lee, 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Reniel Hugo, 4 Justin Basson, 3 Tom Botha, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld (c), 1 Ox Nche.
Subs: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Armandt Koster, 19 Tienie Burger, 20 Niell Jordaan, 21 Tian Meyer, 22 Fred Zeilinga.
Golden Lions – 15 Andries Coetzee, 14 Selom Gavor, 13 Jacques Nel, 12 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Jaco van der Walt, 9 Ross Cronjé (c), 8 Fabian Booysen, 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Kwagga Smith, 5 Andries Ferreira, 4 JP du Preez, 3 Ruan Dreyer, 2 Robbie Coetzee, 1 Dylan Smith.
Subs: 16 Akker van der Merwe, 17 Pieter Scholtz, 18 Martin Muller, 19 Ruan Ackermann, 20 Dillon Smit, 21 Ashlon Davids, 22 Howard Mnisi.
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images