BLOEMFONTEIN - The Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs gained their first victory of their Pro-14 campaign with a 54-39 victory over Italian side Zebre at the Free State Stadium on Saturday evening.
Both sides headed into the clash winless after two outings, but a decent crowd, who had taken advantage of the free admission offered by the host union, were treated to a 13-try fest. The home side out-scored the gallant Italians by eight tries to five (halftime 19-18).
The visitors were left wanting in their discipline and were twice reduced to 14 men in the match – once in either half – and on both occasions the Cheetahs made them pay.
It was a frustrating opening quarter for the Free Staters, finding it difficult to build any rhythm and launch anything constructive from the set phases.
Leading 6-0 after a pair of Carlo Canna penalties had given the visitors the early advantage, giant lock forward George Biagi crashed over in the 17th minute following superb interplay between backs and forwards, with an equally impressive offload in the tackle by Gabriele Di Giulio just short of the tryline to the advancing Biagi.
The home side hit straight back as Luther Obi collected an attempted Zebre clearance, before releasing flyer Makazole Mapimpi, who goose stepped skilfully past the defender before dotting down.
In a key moment in an error-strewn first stanza, the men from Parma found themselves a man down when lock forward David Sisi was yellow-carded for leading with an elbow with ball in hand.
It did not take long for the Cheetahs to cash in on their numerical advantage and the hosts scored two unanswered tries during that 10 minute phase.
They found themselves ahead for the first time in the match in the 27th minute when William Small-Smith stretched over the line from a Francois Venter layoff. The conversion by young flyhalf Ernest Stapelberg gave the hosts a fragile one point lead.
That stretched to an eight-point cushion moments later when Venter was again involved, this time floating a pin-point long pass out wide to the speedy Luther Obi.
Still a man down, Zebre struck back quickly with a try by SA-born Johan Meyer, allowing the visitors to go in at halftime with a very slender one point deficit.
Man of the Match Mapimpi was on the scorecard for the second time five minutes into the second period, as Sergeal Petersen stabbed a deft little grubber kick through for the speedy winger to collect.
Namibian hooker Thorsten van Jaarsveld, another multiple try-scorer on the night, barrelled over from a rolling maul five metres out, which also cost the visitors a second yellow.
This time it was lock forward Biagi who saw red for collapsing the mall.
Despite being a man down again, Zebre managed to keep within touching distance and a quick tap by scrumhalf Marcello Violi caught the Cheetahs napping and Bellini ran in the 5-pointer.
Van Jaarsveld put daylight between the two sides again when he was on hand for his second try, powering his way through from another maul.
The visiting side did not throw the towel and came within eight points late in the match, but Tian Meyer and Seargal Petersen crossed the whitewash for the hosts, to ensure victory.
But it was the Italians who had the final say as winger Giulio Bisegni latched on to an inside pass to score.
Both flyhalves had their radar well set with the left-footed Stapelberg nailing seven conversions, and his opposite number Canna converting three of his side's five tries and landing two first half penalties before Guglielmo Palazzani took over the kicking duties late in the match.
Scores: Cheetahs 54 (19) – Tries Makazole Mapimpi (2), William Small-Smith, Luther Obi, Thorsten van Jaarsveld, (2), Tian Meyer, Seargal Petersen – Conversions – Ernst Stapelberg (7) Penalties -
Zebre 39 (18) – Tries – George Biagi, Johan Meyer, Mattia Bellini, Faialaga Afamasaga, Giulio Bisegni, Coversions – Carlo Canna (3) Guglielmo Palazzani , Penalties – Carlo Canna (2).