BLOEMFONTEIN – A last-minute Niel Marais penalty helped the Cheetahs keep their PRO14 playoff hopes alive as they edged Connacht 26-25 in their clash in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
The Cheetahs knew full well that after three losses overseas they had to win this match to remain in contention for the playoffs.
And they came out of the blocks like 100m sprinters and in almost no time at all, No 8 Uzair Cassiem had scored from the unremitting attack.
Marais added the conversion, and a few minutes later landed his first penalty to give his side a handy 10-0 lead after as many minutes.
The Irish struck back in the 14th minute when from a set scrum in the Cheetahs’ 22, a planned move saw left wing Matt Healy in at the corner, with Jack Carty adding the extra two points.
The Cheetahs hit back with Marais’ second penalty but in a case of déjà vu, Connacht scored two minutes later when from a scrum deep in Cheetahs territory, a set move saw Healy over in the corner for his second try.
The missed conversion meant the Cheetahs held on to a slender lead at 13-12, and Marais then promptly extended that to 16-12 with his third penalty in the 24th minute.
Again the Irish side hit back, with Carty pulling three points back for his side with a well-taken long-range penalty just before halftime.
🐆 @CheetahsRugby won't go down without a fight 👊@Sibahle_maxwane springs through after a turnover and brings the home side back within one score of @connachtrugby.
📺 Watch live on @SkySportsRugby or @SuperSportTV.#CHEvCON #GUINNESSPRO14 pic.twitter.com/plgy3O19Bt
Just two minutes into the second half, the visitors took the lead for the first time when Carty was again on target with a penalty to give his team an 18-16 lead.
Carty was on song and as the game hit the three-quarter mark, the flyhalf slipped through the midfield defence to set up a clean run to the posts for outside centre Eoin Griffin. The Carty conversion made it 25-16 to Connacht.
The Cheetahs responded emphatically, with substitute centre Sibahle Maxwane on the end of a try-making break by wing Craig Barry, and the conversion made the scoreline 25-23 to the visitors to set up a fascinating finale to the game.
And it could not have been more dramatic, with Marais kicking the winning penalty 20 seconds from the fulltime hooter.
Cheetahs 26 – Tries: Uzair Cassiem, Sibahle Maxwane. Conversions: Niel Marais (2). Penalties: Marais (4).
Connacht 25 – Tries: Matt Healy (2), Eoin Griffin. Conversions: Jack Carty (2). Penalties: Carty (2).
African News Agency (ANA)