Whatever coach Naka Drotske said to his Toyota Free State Cheetahs team when he read the riot act to them this week worked but the resurrection eventually amounted to nothing as Demetri Catrakilis snapped over a late drop-goal that secured DHL Western Province a nailbiting 29-27 Absa Currie Cup win in Bloemfontein.
For most of the way the Cheetahs were the better team, dominating possession and being the team that put together the multi-phase attacks, but Province came back strongly in the last quarter.
The lead changed hands three times in the last quarter hour of the game, Catrakilis’s drop-goal putting the Cape side into a winning position with just over a minute to go.
Fittingly, the WP comeback in the second half coincided with the period that Schalk Burger was on the field.
The Springbok flanker received a rousing ovation from the Free State Stadium crowd when he came on at the hour mark, and although it would be stretching it to suggest he actually won the game for his team, he did make his presence felt and showed that over his 18 months of absence he hasn’t forgotten how to play the game.
Catrakilis, with his game management, might have been the man who made the biggest impact for WP in the period that counted, as the win was built around them playing the last quarter in the right area of the field.
But it is easy to feel sympathy for the Cheetahs, who lifted themselves considerably from their poor effort against the Sharks the previous week.
Drotske had made some changes, and was apparently in an agitated mood after his team’s no-show at Growthpoint Kings Park, and although he will be frustrated his men didn’t give him the result he was looking for, he could not fault their commitment.
The Cheetahs came second to WP in the first round game in wet weather in Cape Town in the set-phases, particularly the scrums, but that was righted this time. Instead it was WP who were under pressure in the scrums, and the hosts also played well in the lineouts.
But it was the speed and precision with which the Cheetahs got the ball back from the breakdowns in the first half that accounted for them leading the match for most of the way.
That and another off-night from Province, who were again messy in getting the ball from the lineouts and made too many errors that prevented them from gaining any kind of momentum.
The Cheetahs made their intentions felt from the kick-off, forcing early pressure which enabled Rian Smit to kick the first three pointer after just two minutes after WP were penalised for having players in front of Cheslin Kolbe when he tried to clear his line.
The Cheetahs clearly intended putting kicks onto Kolbe, and that aspect of their approach was a feature of their approach, with it working on occasion and on other occasions, such as when the ball found its way to the tall Damian de Allende, it didn’t.
WP would have felt aggrieved at conceding the first try after eight minutes, as Kurt Coleman had produced an excellent break and Province were building strongly when Lappies Labuschagne intercepted and transferred the pressure.
Cheetahs captain Boom Prinsloo, who had an excellent game as a carrier, as did Labuschagne, carried the attack on before Hennie Daniller rounded off.
Instead of scoring a try themselves WP found themselves conceding one, but if being 10-0 down in just eight minutes stung them they didn’t show it, as they quickly fought back to level the scores.
Kolbe set the scoreboard rolling for them by going over untouched between the posts from a set-scrum move, and then Kurt Coleman added a penalty to his conversion.
An intercept by Gerhard van den Heever put WP in a position to force a penalty that Coleman kicked after 25 minutes to give Province the lead for the first time, but they quickly conceded it again as they made yet another mistake that allowed the Cheetahs to score off turn-over ball.
Again it was the Cheetahs skipper who figured prominently, as it was he who latched onto a WP chip kick that just didn’t work for them to turn it into an attacking opportunity.
With the aid of a penalty advantage, the Cheetahs kept carrying the ball through the phases until finally WP just ran out of numbers on defence and Daniller was over in the corner for his second try.
The Riaan Smit conversion made it 17-13, which was the halftime score, but it was Smit’s last contribution to the game as he had to be replaced because of injury.
WP started the second half with greater intent and drew the deficit back to just one point with an early second half penalty, but then yet another turn-over, which was well used by the Cheetahs with an excellent run from Robert Ebersohn aided by some intelligent play from Johann Sadie put scrumhalf Sarel Pretorius in for the Cheetahs’ third try and an eight point lead.
A driving maul try from Michael Rhodes after 62 minutes, converted from the angle by Catrakilis, brought WP back into the game, and they were back in the lead for the first time in the half when Catrakilis kicked a 41-metre penalty in the 67th minute.
The Cheetahs were back in the lead when WP No 8 Nizaam Carr was penalised for obstructing Ebersohn chasing a kick, but Province played their best rugby of the match after that, proving they could hold onto the ball without making mistakes as they launched several multi-phase movements before finally they opted to put Catrakilis in position to drop for goal.
DHL Western Province – Tries: Cheslin Kolbe and Michael Rhodes; Conversions: Kurt Coleman and Demetri Catrakilis; Penalties: Kurt Coleman 3 and Demetri Catrakilis; Drop-goal: Catrakilis.
Toyota Free State Cheetahs – Tries: Hennie Daniller 2 and Sarel Pretorius; Conversions: Rian Smit 2 and Elgar Watts; Penalties: Rian Smit and Elgar Watts 2.