The Toyota Cheetahs' hopes of making this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby playoffs took a nosedive on Saturday as they lost another high-scoring shootout, this time 40-30 to the Auckland Blues at Eden Park.
The defeat means they have lost five of their six matches this season, ended off their four week tour without a victory and once again looked to be searching for answers on defence and struggling with refereeing interpretations.
It was difficult not to feel for the Bloemfontein side, as once again many of their problems revolved around a yellow card – and this time an extremely debatable one – with flanker Boom Prinsloo being sin-binned for coming into a tackle from the wrong side just outside his tryline.
The problem was, just before that, Argentinean referee Frederico Pestrana issued a verbal warning to the Blues, but said nothing to the Cheetahs, yet they were carded when the next whistle was blown.
It was a strange moment in a match that was dominated by Pestrana’s whistle in the opening minutes, and even confused the New Zealand commentators as to why Prinsloo was carded, with former All Black Justin Marshall openly questioning the decision.
Prinsloo’s time off the park saw 17 points scored, taking the scoreline from 13-all to 30-13 and leaving the Cheetahs needing to chase the game from there on.
Still, while they were brave enough to force themselves back into the game, and even scored some beautiful tries, the gap was just too large to haul in, and the Blues held out for a much-needed win after they returned from South Africa scoreless.
With so many penalties in the opening 20, it wasn’t surprising that the scoreline was 6-all in the opening minutes, giving both kickers ample opportunity to grab some points.
But it was the Blues who crossed the tryline first, when Steven Luatua barged over from close range to give them an early lead.
The Cheetahs hit back almost immediately though, taking a line-out drive over the line for Prinsloo to dot down.
Prinsloo was carded shortly afterwards and the game turned firmly in the home side’s favour, first through a Simon Hickey penalty and then through another controversial referee's decision that led to a try.
George Moala was stopped short of the line and burrowed over, with the television match official clearly telling Pestrana that it was a double movement. Despite this the referee ignored his call and gave the try to the Blues.
Salt was rubbed into the Cheetahs' wounds when Willie le Roux made a hash of a clearance, and the Blues picked it up and sent Tevita Lee away for a second try within minutes, ripping the game away from the visitors.
Elgar Watts drew back a penalty after coming onto the field for the injured Johan Goosen, and then Cornal Hendricks scored possibly one of the tries of the season as he was put into a gap by Johan Sadie. He then weaved his way inside and out for 20 metres to flummox the defence and score a sensational try.
The Blues kept their lead healthy when Tony Woodcock burrowed over from close range, but the Cheetahs scored another great try when Sadie broke through, then sent the ball wide for Hennie Daniller to complete the try.
At 37-30 the Cheetahs were still in it, but mistakes as they tried to force the pace cost them, and Hickey added a penalty to put the Blues clear.
The final minutes were a flurry but one filled with mistakes, as the Cheetahs desperately tried to come back, but were their own worst enemies as the clock ticked down.
Naka Drotske’s side will return to the solace of a bye round this week, but will need some desperate soul-searching, especially on defence as they try to save what is left of their Super Rugby season.
Blues- Tries: Steven Luatua, George Moala, Tevita Li, Tony Woodcock . Conversions: Simon Hickey (4). Penalties: Simon Hickey (4).
Cheetahs - Tries: Boom Prinsloo, Cornall Hendricks, Hennie Daniller. Conversions: Johan Goosen, Elgar Watts (2) .Penalties: Johan Goosen (2), Elgar Watts