Cape Town – The Cheetahs produced a solid performance in wet conditions, but went down 20-17 to the Scarlets in the Challenge Cup in Wales on Friday night.
Persistent rain and strong winds throughout the winter night at Parc y Scarlets in Llanelli made life difficult for the Bloemfontein outfit, but their determination nearly resulted in a memorable triumph.
Coach Hawies Fourie would have been delighted with the fighting spirit shown after the Cheetahs hit back from 10-3 down in the first half to take a 17-10 lead early in the second stanza, following a yellow card to Scarlets No 8 Carwyn Tuipulotu for taking out flank Siba Qoma in the air.
Up to that point, the home side were on top for most of the first half, with the Cheetahs resorting to the influential boot of flyhalf Siya Masuku to keep them in the game.
Masuku perhaps overdid the kicking from hand, but as he is a normally attacking, ball-in-hand pivot, he was playing to instructions due to the weather conditions as the Cheetahs had little choice but to look for territory – and he did pull off some outstanding touch-finders.
They could have shown a bit more ambition on attack, though, as they made good ground whenever they actually held onto the ball.
Their lineout work let them down, as hooker Louis van der Westhuizen was tapped back by the Scarlets on at least five occasions in the opening 40 minutes, while the Cheetahs tended to slip off a few tackles as well.
But their scrambling without the ball meant that the Scarlets only had 10 points to show for their efforts, courtesy of a penalty by fullback Leigh Halfpenny and a well-worked try by left wing Steff Evans in the 23rd minute, which was converted by Halfpenny as well.
Masuku’s three-pointer from the tee reduced the deficit on the half-hour mark, and the visitors received a one-man advantage just before halftime when Tuipulotu tackled Qoma in the air, which saw Scottish referee Hollie Davidson dish out a yellow card.
But as was expected, the Cheetahs were unable to convert their pressure into points, with No 8 Friedle Olivier losing possession at the back of the subsequent scrum.
The visitors were able to fix their lineout issues during the break, though, as they managed to win their own throw-ins more regularly in the second half.
The Cheetahs appeared to play with greater conviction, and they were rewarded within three minutes when hooker Van der Westhuizen crashed over from a five-metre lineout drive, and Masuku’s excellent touchline conversion drew the scores level at 10-10.
They made the Scarlets pay further for the yellow card when replacement flank Daniel Maartens burst up the middle before scrumahalf Rewan Kruger found a flying right wing Daniel Kasende, who sliced through the defence to finish smartly.
Suddenly it was 17-10 to the Cheetahs, and it looked as if captain Victor Sekekete’s team were on their well on their way to victory.
But once Tuipulotu returned, the hosts hit back almost immediately with a scintillating touchdown of their own, with brilliant offloads by captain and centre Jonathan Davies, replacement flyhalf Sam Costelow and No 11 Evans putting right wing Johnny McNicholl clear in the right corner.
The last quarter was always going to be tight as the rain kept falling, and the Cheetahs seemed to be frustrated by a few tight calls from referee Davidson at the breakdowns going the Scarlets’ way.
They also had a few lapses in concentration with their ruck clean-outs during promising attacks that saw them penalised.
Eventually Halfpenny got an opportunity to put the Scarlets ahead with the boot, and the veteran sharp-shooter made no mistake in the 64th minute to make it 20-17.
The Cheetahs had a few more chances in the last 10 minutes, including one attacking lineout that was lost, and another passage where Maartens surged forward from a charged-down kick, but it was to no avail as the Scarlets held on for victory to advance to the round of 16.
What a Night 🤩@Scarlets_Rugby book their spot in the knockouts as they qualify for the Round of 16 and @DragonsRugby got their own back on Section Paloise 🔥— EPCR Challenge Cup (@ChallengeCup_) January 13, 2023
Moment of the night? #ChallengeCupRugby pic.twitter.com/zfNtOTlOCH
Scarlets 20 – Tries: Steff Evans, Johnny McNicholl. Conversion: Leigh Halfpenny (1). Penalties: Halfpenny (2).
Cheetahs 17 – Tries: Louis van der Westhuizen, Daniel Kasende. Conversions: Siya Masuku (2). Penalty: Masuku (1).