ULSTER – The Cheetahs had a sobering introduction to the quality of northern hemisphere provincial competition when they were soundly beaten 42-19 by Ulster in the first match of the PRO14 on Friday evening.
There was history in the Belfast air at Kingspan Stadium when the Free State side became the first South African team to compete in a provincial competition north of the equator.
And despite the scoreline, they can hold their heads high, given they had entered unchartered waters since being axed from Super Rugby.
It was an interesting scenario, considering four of the Ulster pack were South Africans in Marcell Coetzee, Robbie Diack, Wiehahn Herbst and Jean Deysel (who was the Man of the Match), while in the backs, Louis Ludik was on the left wing.
The Cheetahs started brightly, with a succession of penalties from the kickoff giving William Small-Smith a chance to goal an easy penalty but he fluffed it.
Instead, Ulster weathered the storm and scrumhalf John Cooney made it 3-0 after 15 minutes.
The Cheetahs silenced the home support when wing Rosko Specman broke down the touchline and stepped left and right around defenders before clearing a run to the line for flyhalf Clayton Blommetjies, and this time Small-Smith was on target with the conversion attempt.
Ulster struck back immediately through Ireland international wing Tommy Bowe, who found himself in space out wide. Cooney missed the conversion, but his side was in the lead at 8-7 after the first quarter.
It was a short-lived lead, though.
A Cheetahs kick over the defence set up wing Makazole Mapimpi for a race to the line, and he got there ahead of the defenders.
The two points were added by Small-Smith from the touchline.
There was a pivotal moment 10 minutes before the break when an Ulster maul advancing to the tryline was pulled down by Cheetahs loose forward Henco Venter, who was shown a yellow card.
To rub salt into the wounds, Ulster scored through lock Alan O’Connor and the conversion put the home side in front.
Ulster quickly followed up the score when centre Stuart McCloskey scored from the kickoff and the conversion made it 22-14.
Ulster had the game by the scruff of the neck and they had the fourth try just before halftime when fullback Charles Piutau scored in the corner.
The Cheetahs could not have had a worse start to the second half when former Sharks and Lions fullback Ludik scored just a minute after the kickoff.
The Cheetahs were living off scraps, given the domination of the Ulster pack, and their only hope was the counter-attack.
When Cecil Afrika got a sniff of a gap from rare possession, he slipped through the midfield defence to set up a try for his old Bok Sevens teammate Sergeal Petersen, to narrow the score to 32-19.
The Cheetahs threatened to make a comeback when they emptied their bench and had fresh energy, only for Johan Coetzee to be yellow-carded for a high tackle.
While the prop was off the field, Ulster again made the extra man count when Peter Nelson scored four minutes from time and converted his own try for the 42-19 finish.
Ulster 42 – Tries: Tommy Bowe, Alan O’Connor, Stuart McCloskey, Charles Piutau, Louis Ludik, Peter Nelson. Conversions: John Cooney (2), Peter Nelson (1). Penalties: Cooney (2).
Cheetahs 19 – Tries: Clayton Blommetjies, Makazole Mapimpi, Sergeal Petersen. Conversions: William Small-Smith (2).
African News Agency (ANA)