Cape Town — So worried was Free State Cheetahs coach Hawies Fourie about the Currie Cup semi-final against the Blue Bulls that he woke up at 5am on match-day and couldn’t get back to sleep.
The angst that the former Boland flyhalf was feeling was not necessarily caused by the quality of Jake White’s team, but rather by last year’s drama-filled semi-final defeat to the Pumas.
On that occasion at the Free State Stadium, the Cheetahs were leading comfortably at 35-24 with 10 minutes left, but then wing Rosko Specman was yellow-carded in the 74th minute and it sparked a Pumas resurgence, and the Mpumalanga side scored two late tries via Simon Raw and Ali Mgijima, which were both converted by Tinus de Beer to secure a 38-35 victory.
Jimmy Stonehouse’s Pumas went on to win the title by beating Griquas 26-19 in the final in Kimberley.
But at least there wasn’t a repeat for Fourie this time around, as his Cheetahs dispatched the Bulls 39-10 in Bloemfontein at the weekend to set up a rematch with the Pumas – who held off the Sharks 26-20 in Durban – in the title decider.
“It’s a big relief, especially for myself,” Fourie said in the post-match press conference. “That loss against the Pumas last year, it took a long time for me to get over it.
“I think I’m only over it now. This morning at five o’clock I woke up, and I couldn’t sleep again. All those things go into your head – where we conceded two tries in the last 10 minutes (against the Pumas), and it nearly happened again tonight with that try that they didn’t allow, with about 12 minutes to go.
“But we are well-conditioned, which was a bit of a problem last year, and I think our bench makes a huge difference. The guys that are coming on lift the energy, lift the tempo – so I was confident that if we could get ahead by halftime, that we will win the game.
“It was a quality performance from us … There was nothing flashy: there was a great try that they didn’t allow, where the backs interplayed with Cohen (Jasper) to the inside.
“But we just did the basics very well, and stuck to what’s working for us.”
Veteran Ruan Pienaar – whom Fourie called “the ultimate competitor” – pulled the strings once more from flyhalf as he directed the Cheetahs smartly around the pitch, while also scoring 22 points with the boot via six penalties and two conversions, with the three tries coming from Reinhardt Fortuin, Tapiwa Mafura and Evardi Boshoff.
It was the forwards, though, who got stuck in and took the fight to the Springbok-laden Bulls pack, with unsung heroes such as locks Rynier Bernardo and captain Victor Sekekete, loose forwards Siba Qoma and Friedle Olivier, and hooker Marnus van der Merwe doing the hard yards at close quarters so that Pienaar could dictate play.
The rush defence also worked a treat, forcing several knock-ons from the Bulls in promising attacking situations.
But now Fourie is hoping that props Schalk Ferreira and Hencus van Wyk can pass their respective head injury assessment concussion protocols this week after leaving the pitch with head knocks.
If they are ruled out, then Nqoba “Mox” Mxoli and Laurence Victor will be called up for what is set to be a thrilling final against the Pumas at the Free State Stadium on Saturday (4pm kickoff).
“The Pumas for me are a really dangerous team on attack. They can score tries from anywhere on the field, and they are very physical – so it’s a bit more difficult to get momentum and quick ball against them than any other team in the competition,” Fourie said.
“We’ve got a score to settle with the Pumas since last year’s semi-final … so there’s enough motivation for us, and to win the Cup is the ultimate.
“So, I’m confident that we will be down-to-earth again on Monday and work hard as in the previous weeks, and prepare well.”