CAPE TOWN – The Free State Cheetahs staged a fight-back of dramatic proportions to run out deserving 38-33 victors over Western Province in the Currie Cup match at Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein, on Saturday.
With this bonus-point win, Free State moved to the top of the Currie Cup log and ensured a home semifinal next week.
At one stage, Free State looked dead and buried when WP surged ahead 19-0 in the first half.
However, after trailing 26-12 at halftime Free State fought back brilliantly with four second-half tries which only just put the game beyond the Cape Town visitors, with an eventual 6-4 try count.
The teams went into the match knowing that there were only two semifinal berths up for grabs after the Golden Lions - Griquas contest earlier on Saturday. After that match, the victorious Lions, 27-26 winners, moved to the top of the log with 22 points and Griquas one place behind with 21 points.
At the outset, Free State were let off the hook just two minutes into the game when they dropped a pass some five metres out from the tryline. WP centre Ruhan Nel scooped up the stray ball, but then dropped the ball just ahead of dotting down.
A minute later, WP won a scrum penalty and their leftwing SP Marais steered his kick through the posts for an early 3-0 lead.
Free State were battling to find cohesion on attack in the face of WP's line speed on defence and they added to their woes by knocking on the ball frequently.
Two more scrum penalties in the space of three minutes for WP saw Marais triple his side's lead with two sound strikes for a 9-0 lead after 16 minutes (9-0).
Free State did well to transfer play into the WP 22m area after retaining the ball through several phases, but they surrendered a turn-over some 10 metres out from the tryline.
Once WP managed to relieve the pressure and take play into the Free State half where they were awarded another penalty which Marais converted (12-0).
By this time, WP's power upfront was in very much in evidence and when they set off on a surge downfield in the Free State half they burst through a host of tackles and prop Wilco Louw rounded off with the first try in the match. The Marais conversion gave WP a commanding 19-0 lead after 23 minutes.
Just past the half-hour mark, there was a distinct momentum shift in the game and WP were forced on to a defensive role deep inside their half. Free State came good with an unconverted try by centre William Small-Smith to reduce the deficit (19-5).
Free State should have made more of their ascendency at that stage, more so after they booted three close-in penalties to touch in an effort score from the line-outs. However, WP defended well enough to avert further danger.
Just ahead of halftime attack triumphed over defence as each managed a converted try. First, a spell of deft footwork by flyhalf Damian Willemse opened the way for Dillyn Leyds to score (26-5).
Two minutes later, Free State hooker Joseph Dweba burst through a few tackles for Free State's second try which flyhalf Tian Schoeman converted on the stroke of halftime (26-12).
There was a promising build-up by Free State in the opening minutes when play restarted, but then they knocked on some five metres from the whitewash.
A huge clearance kick by Marais sent WP on their way. Once they worked the ball downfield, hooker Scarra Ntubeni unchallenged, gathered a kick pass to score a converted try far out (33-12).
Four minutes later, there was a telling response from Free State who managed two converted tries in the space of three minutes. The try-scorers were leftwing Tian Meyer and rightwing Darren Adonis (33-26).
With the latter's try, Free State bagged a bonus point and the lead cut was back to a mere seven points after trailing by 19 points at one stage.
On the hour mark, Free State turned the match on its head with a converted try by replacement prop Ox Nche to level scores at 33-all.
The momentum remained with Free State who went further ahead through an unconverted try by replacement Jasper Wiese in the 72nd minute (38-33).
Scorers: Free State 38 (12): Tries: William Small-Smith, Joseph Dweba, Tian Meyer, Darren Adonis, Ox Nche, Jasper Wiese. Conversions: Tian Schoeman (4)
WP 33 (26): Tries: Wilco Louw, Dillyn Leyds, Scarra Ntubeni. Conversions: SP Marais (3) Penalties: Marais (4)
African News Agency (ANA)