Clayton Blommetjies of the Free State Cheetahs celebrates with his team-mates after scoring his try during the 2019 Currie Cup Rugby Final against the Golden Lions at Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein on Saturday. Photo: Christiaan Kotze/BackpagePix

BLOEMFONTEIN – The Free State Cheetahs bagged their sixth Currie Cup title with a hard-fought, edge-of-the-seat victory against the Golden Lions in the 2019 final in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

It was a perfect and fitting send-off for their coach Franco Smith, who will leave the union in the coming months before taking up the position of Italy head coach from January.

There were stars aplenty in the home team as they out-muscled the young Lions players, many of whom were playing in their first final at this level. The Cheetahs’ experience of playing in the Europe-based Pro 14 competition also showed.

Smith’s men were simply smarter, executed their game-plan better and tackled like a team that wanted to win the title. Front-row forwards, prop Ox Nche and hooker Joseph Dweba, were outstanding with and without the ball, locks Walt Steenkamp and Sintu Manjesi and loose-forwards Junior Pokomela, Gerhard Olivier and Henco Venter all shone in the tight exchanges.

The Cheetahs’ win was built on a commanding first half performance and even though the Lions hit back in the final 10 minutes of the clash with converted tries by replacements Dillon Smit and James Venter, with two, the home team hung on for a deserved, if somewhat too-close-for-comfort, victory at the end.

Dweba scored early for the Cheetahs from a lineout drive, but that was cancelled out by a Wandisile Simelane try after some strong running by Lions backs Tyrone Green and Stean Pienaar. Sadly for the men from Joburg that was their only high point of the first half.

William Small-Smith, Clayton Blommetjies and Steenkamp all scored further tries for the Cheetahs in the first half to give the Smith’s side a big cushion at the interval. It was the umpteenth time this season that Ivan van Rooyen’s men had trailed at the break and while they staged some remarkable fight-backs throughout the season, and again fought until the very end here, they simply ran out of time.

At 31-7 up with 10 minutes to play, it looked as if the Cheetahs would simply run down the clock and ease to their sixth title, but that’s hardly how it played out.

Replacement scrumhalf Smit, with a try on 71 minutes, and then loose-forward Venter, with two tries in the 75th and 79th minutes, got the Lions to within three points of the Cheetahs at the death, but before they could launch any further attacks, the final hooter sounded on the 2019 season. The Cheetahs were unable to score any second half points.

In the end the only difference between the teams, who both scored four converted tries, was a first half penalty struck by veteran scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, who only joined the Cheetahs after the campaign had started after returning to Bloemfontein from Europe where he had been based since 2010.

Scores

Cheetahs (31) 31: Tries: Dweba, Small-Smith, Blommetjies, Steenkamp; Conversions: Pienaar (4); Penalty: Pienaar

Lions (7) 28: Tries: Simelane, Smit, Venter (2); Conversions: Reynolds (4)

IOL Sport

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