The Toyota Free State Cheetahs had to fight off a strong second-half performance from the MTN Golden Lions before a penalty kick, three minutes before time, from Riaan Smit saw them to a 26-23 victory (half-time 23-3) in their Absa Currie Cup match at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein on Friday.
The Cheetahs had dominated the first half but the Lions scored 20 unanswered points in the second half to level the scores with seven minutes left to play.
But right-wing Smit, who turned in a flawless goal-kicking performance on the night, coolly slotted a penalty from the right-hand side of the field to secure the narrowest of victories for the hosts.
Smit ended with 16 points courtesy of four penalties and two conversions.
That the Lions had even got so close was something of a minor miracle considering how poor they had been in the first half.
The Lions fell off a number of tackles in the first 40 minutes while their poor handling was also a cause for concern. They were also hamstrung by a yellow-card received by flyhalf Elton Jantjies, in the 30th minute, for throwing the ball away while outside the field of play five metres short of his own tryline.
The hosts hit the lead in the eighth minute when they pounced on the ball after a Lions knock-on. The ball was taken through nine phases before outside centre Johann Sadie dived over in the left-hand corner for a converted try.
Jantjies and Smit then exchanged penalties before the Cheetahs, despite a pack which was battling in the scrums, took over.
Smit kicked three penalties before scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius took advantage of the hosts' numerical advantage when he broke from an attacking scrum five metres from the Lions’ tryline to worm his way over next to the posts for a converted try with less than a minute to play in the first half.
The Lions began the second half as the stronger of the two teams but all they had to show for having the best of the first 10 minutes after the restart was a single Jantjies penalty.
The Lions’ inability to build phases because of poor handling looked as if it would continue to haunt them in the second half but they slowly but surely found their rhythm.
They finally managed to string some passes together when they took the ball through five phases, with inside centre Dylan Des Fountain throwing a huge skip pass which stretched the Cheetahs’ defence with replacement flank Jaco Kriel providing some impressive link play, before replacement fullback Ruhan Nel cantered over for a converted try to make the score 13-23 after 60 minutes.
The Lions’ fightback continued when they nabbed their second try, three minutes later, when wing Anthony Volmink was on hand to steal the ball and dive over from close range, after Cheetahs’ left wing Raymond Rhule had been scragged just short of his own tryline.
The visitors drew level, with seven minutes left in the match, when Jantjies kicked a long-range penalty and to set up the thrilling finish before Smit kicked the Cheetahs' only points of the second half to clinch the win.
Toyota Free State Cheetahs – Tries: Johann Sadie, Sarel Pretorius; Conversions: Riaan Smit (2); Penalties: Smit (4).
MTN Golden Lions – Tries: Ruhan Nel, Anthony Volmink; Conversions: Elton Jantjies (2); Penalties: Jantjies (3).