PORT ELIZABETH – The Cheetahs scored a hard-fought 21-20 victory over the Southern Kings in the final game of Super Rugby for the two outfits on Friday.
The pre-match predictions were that this would be a high-scoring game between the two teams axed from Super Rugby, and it was the Cheetahs who were outplayed for three-quarters of the game at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
But the Free Staters saved their best for last, and came back from a 20-6 deficit to sneak an unlikely win through two late tries.
After 20 minutes of sparring, the Kings broke the try-scoring deadlock when wing Makazole Mapimpi scored in the corner when scrumhalf Louis Schreuder broke blind from a scrum near the Cheetahs’ line.
After a lengthy TMO deliberation, Mapimpi was awarded his 11th try of the season, and Lionel Cronjé’s conversion gave the home team a 7-3 lead.
The Cheetahs came within inches of replying with a try in the corner of their own when wing William Small-Smith dived over at the corner flag, but this time TMO Shaun Veldsman ruled that there was a foot in touch.
The Kings, meanwhile, had suffered a blow when in-form openside flank Chris Cloete went off with a shoulder injury.
Nevertheless, they maintained their dominance of the rucks and mauls, and relentless pressure resulted in their second try when Schreuder fed blindside wing Wandile Mjekevu from a ruck just short of the Cheetahs’ line.
The second half began with the Kings continuing their overall dominance, and when they kept the ball through a dozen phases, lock Giant Mtyanda found himself free for a run to the corner.
Again Cronjé missed the conversion, but the Kings were in command at 17-3 after 10 minutes into the second half.
An indication of the pressure the Cheetahs were under came in the 12th minute when instead of kicking for the corner, they took the conservative option of Fred Zeilinga kicking for goal, which made it 17-6.
By contrast, the Kings kept attacking the corners from penalties because they knew they were dominating upfront.
But when the tries did not come, captain Cronjé changed his tune as the game hit the three-quarter mark and kicked an easy penalty for a 20-6 lead.
The Cheetahs pulled themselves together and centre Clinton Swart scored at the corner flag to give his team hope at 20-11, and when Raymond Rhule scored just two minutes later, it was game on.
Niel Marais kicked the conversion and it was 20-18 with eight minutes to go.
Two minutes later, Marais kicked a penalty to give his team a 21-20 lead with five minutes remaining.
It was an extraordinary turnaround, and the Kings will have been left wondering how they conspired to lose a game they seemed to have won.
Southern Kings 20 – Tries: Makazole Mapimpi, Wandile Mjekevu, Giant Mtyanda. Conversion: Lionel Cronjé (1). Penalty: Cronjé (1).
Cheetahs 21 – Tries: Clinton Swart, Raymond Rhule. Conversion: Niel Marais (1). Penalties: Fred Zeilinga (2), Marais (1).
African News Agency (ANA)