JOHANNESBURG – The Free State Cheetahs are proof of how quickly things can change in sport as just 12 months ago they finished last in the Currie Cup standings and had to play a promotion-relegation match to secure their status in the Premier Division.
On Saturday in Bloemfontein they were crowned 2019 Currie Cup champions. Franco Smith’s players may have taken their foot off the pedal in the second half of Saturday’s final against the Golden Lions, which they ended up winning 31-28, but they had done enough in a stunning first half to bag their sixth Currie Cup title.
“To think where we were a year ago ... we played promotion relegation, but we worked our way back,” said a happy head coach Franco Smith after Saturday’s triumph in Bloemfontein.
“This is another important brick in the wall, another stepping stone, of what we’re building here.”
Smith called the victory “a great win against a group of Lions that threw everything at us.”
Indeed. The Cheetahs started the final exactly how Smith would have wanted them to, by scoring four converted tries and a penalty in a stunning first half to lead 31-7 at the interval. But the Lions - as they had done so often in 2019 - staged a quite remarkable comeback in the final quarter by scoring three converted tries themselves to edge to within three points of their hosts.
In the end the Lions - who had all the momentum in the dying minutes - ran out of time and good fortune.
“One more minute,” mused Lions coach Ivan van Rooyen about how close his team came to pulling off a shock win at the end of the 80 minutes.
“Of course, I’m disappointed, but I’m also proud of the way the guys fought back. There’s so much character in them. Our slogan from day one this season was to learn something every day. We put a high price on education ... fail quickly, learn quickly ... and today will be huge for these players’ careers. Some players never get an opportunity of playing in a final, so they’ll take big learnings from this.
“It was great to see the young guys fighting for something they believe in. Every game was a fight for us this year and I’m proud of that spirit.”
Veteran Cheetahs star, scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, who only recently returned to Bloemfontein from Europe where he had been based since 2010, said he thought when he left South Africa he would never get a chance of playing in a Currie Cup final again. “The last one was in 2008 and I thought then I’d never get a chance to win the Currie Cup again. It was a great first-half performance (that got us lover the line) and it’s a special one.”
The Cheetahs will now turn their attention to the PRO14, which kicks off in less than two weeks’ time. Team captain Tian Meyer said he was proud of what had been achieved by the Free State Rugby Union over the last year.
“The way everyone here has pulled together over the last year, the love and care they’ve all shown ... I’m so grateful and happy we could pull off this win for everyone here,” Meyer said.@jacq_west