Poor kicking and indiscipline cost the Leopards dearly as they slumped to a shock defeat at the hands of the Border Bulldogs by 26-22 (halftime 20-10) in their Absa Currie First Division match at Profert Olen Park in Potchefstroom on Friday.
The Leopards' loosehead prop, BG Uys, scored a hat-trick of tries on the night but poor kicking from Adriaan Engelbrecht, who has the second highest points tally this season, led to the home side's downfall, despite out-scoring the visitors by four tries to two.
Dale Sabbagh had a decent night with the boot as the Border fullback slotted two conversions and four penalties from nine attempts, missing three penalties. But Engelbrecht, who has been steady all season, succumed to the pressure as the centre missed his three attempts at goal and the kicking duties were handed to Warren Gilbert, as the flyhalf converted Uys's final try.
The Leopards, who were five points adrift of the second-placed Eastern Province Kings before kick-off, needed to win this match if they harboured any hopes of challenging for a home semifinal. The hosts had won all three previous encounters between the two sides, and were expected to win again today.
But the visitors started like a house on fire when they won back possession from the kick-off and loosehead prop Kwezi Mkhafu rumbled over for the opening try after just two minutes. Sabbagh added the two points to give the men from East London the perfect start to an indifferent season.
The Leopards struck back through their fullback, Danie Dames, who finished off a lovely move to score in the corner, but Engelbrecht was unable to slot the conversion, leaving the hosts trailing by two points after 10 minutes.
Sabbagh slotted his first penalty after 16 minutes but failed to add another three points just four minutes later. But that missed penalty was forgotten as Brian Shabangu, on for the injured Bulldogs captain, Gareth Krouse, scored the visitors' second try after 25 minutes. Sabbagh added to the hosts' agony by slotting the conversion and extending the lead to 12 points.
Uys then scored the first of his three tries 10 minutes before the break, but again Engelbrecht failed to find the target. Sabbagh finished off the first half by kicking his second penalty and sending the sides into the changeroom, 10 points apart.
The Leopards' indiscipline went unpunished at the start of the second stanza as Sabbagh missed two penalty attempts within four minutes of the restart. The hosts must have thought that their fortunes were changing with those missed attempts as Uys bundled his way over for his second try.
Englebrecht missed his third conversion attempt which left the Leopards trailing by five points 10 minutes into the second half.
Sabbagh added another penalty before Uys crossed the chalk for his third try. This time the kicking tee was handed to Gilbert and the flyhalf made no mistake, landing the conversion to bring the hosts to within one point midway through the second half.
The home side were unable to make any headway against the visitors, despite the Bulldogs' open-side flanker, Rynard van Wyk, being sin-binned after 59 minutes.
The Leopards' constant indiscipline then boiled over as Morne Hanekom was shown a yellow card, and the flanker spent the final eight minutes of the match watching from the side-lines. Sabbagh slotted the penalty to make the score 26-22 in favour of the visitors.
The Leopards picked up two points for scoring four tries and losing by less than seven points, which moves them onto 39 points, just three points ahead of the SWD Eagles.
The men from Potch face the Eagles next weekend in what is now a battle to avoid the table-topping Pumas in the semifinal, as the fourth placed team travel to Nelspruit.
Leopards - Tries: BG Uys (3), Danie Dames ; Conversion: Warren Gilbert.
Border - Tries: Kwezi Mkhafu, Brian Shabangu; Conversions: Dale Sabbagh (2) ; Penalties: Sabbagh (4).