THE Eastern Province Kings sealed the top spot on the Absa Currie Cup First Division log on a dramatic penultimate weekend of action which also included a 99-point thriller in Welkom that may yet decide the semi-final make-up, and a barely-believable draw in Kempton Park involving the outgoing champions.
In the weekend's first match, the Kings kept their unbeaten record intact when they came from behind to draw 26-26 in Port Elizabeth against the Ford Pumas, a result made all the more remarkable by the fact that the first-round match between the two sides in Nelspruit also ended in deadlock, at 30-all.
The result leaves the Kings in an unassailable position on top of the log, with their 58 points from 13 matches nine more than the second-placed Pumas, who at least had the consolation of coming away from Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium with a home semi-final in the bag.
In Friday's other match, the Leopards broke the winless Border Bulldogs' hearts in East London when they beat the home side 43-40 to make sure they go into the final round of matches next weekend in third place, tied on 43 points with the fourth-placed Griffons but with a superior points difference.
The Griffons pulled a rabbit from the hat in an astonishing 50-49 victory over the SWD Eagles in Welkom on Saturday, the win meaning that they now hold a five-point lead over the Eagles with a single round to play.
Making the final weekend even more intriguing is the fixture list. The Eagles play the Valke in George and will fancy their chances of a five-point haul, while the Griffons must travel to Nelspruit to face the in-form Pumas, who have nothing further to gain in the round-robin stages.
And in the weekend's final match, the Valke drew 52-52 with defending champions the Regent Boland Kavaliers in Kempton Park, a result of only academic importance as neither side can still reach the playoffs, but one which nevertheless provided the Barnard Stadium crowd with no shortage of entertainment.
Eastern Province Kings (5) 26 Ford Pumas (16) 26
The EP Kings overturned a 21-point deficit to snatch a draw against the Ford Pumas at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Friday.
The log-leading Kings had won 11 matches and drawn one heading into the clash with the Pumas but they looked down and out as they slid to 26-5 down in the 55th minute.
The hosts, despite being down to 14 men for much of the match, found a second wind to run in three tries in the last 23 minutes, with eighthman Luke Watson grabbing two five-pointers to secure what had looked like an unlikely share of the spoils.
Pumas flyhalf JC Roos kicked 16 points courtesy of two conversions and four penalties for the visitors, while he also played a major role in the first try of the match.
The Kings did not help themselves with some poor discipline, with right wing Paul Perez red-carded in the first half for punching while lock David Bulbring picked up a yellow for stamping.
Despite being down to 13 men the Kings managed to reach the break without conceding any points, but the Pumas made their two-man advantage count three minutes after the restart when fullback Coenie van Wyk sliced through.
Roos extended the lead with his fourth penalty before Kings centre Tiger Mangweni slid over for a converted try in the 57th minute after a powerful run.
The score seemed to invigorate the hosts who, despite heavy rain in the final quarter, had the better of their opponents despite being a man down.
The Kings’ persistence paid off in the 74th minute when Watson was mauled over for his 11th try of the season before he dotted down again two minutes from time in a similar fashion with flyhalf George Whitehead stepping up to slot the conversion which secured the draw.
EP Kings – Tries: Tiger Mangweni, Marcello Sampson, Luke Watson (2). Conversions: George Whitehead (3).
Pumas – Tries: JW Jonker, Coenie van Wyk. Conversions: JC Roos (2). Penalties: Roos (4).
Border Bulldogs (14) 40 Leopards (31) 43
The Leopards had to fight off a strong second-half performance from the Border Bulldogs before securing a narrow 43-40 win at the BCM Stadium.
Both teams ran in six tries but the Leopards must have thought that they had the match wrapped up by half-time as they took a 31-14 lead into the break against a Border team which has failed to win a match this season.
But the hosts turned it on in the second half with tries to inside centre Niell Jacobs, lock Gareth Krause, wing Johannes Seerane and a penalty try to come within spitting distance of the Leopards.
Left wing Allister Kettledas ran in a brace of tries for the visitors while flyhalf Andrè Pretorius kicked five conversions and a penalty for a personal haul of 13 points.
The Leopards made a fast start with a try in the second minute to centre Justin St Jerry before centre partner Hennie Skorbinski glided over two minutes later.
Border finally hit back in the 17th minute when wing Chumani Booi dotted down for a converted try before Kettledas scored for the first time four minutes later.
Leopards fullback Malan van der Merwe scored a wonderful break-out try on the hooter after the Bulldogs had been hard on attack on the Leopards’ tryline.
Border’s fightback started in the fourth minute of the second half when they were awarded a penalty try before the Leopards re-established their dominance with two tries in nine minute to lock Brendan Snyman and Kettledas.
But the Bulldogs nabbed three tries in 11 minutes through Jacobs, Krause and Seerane to narrow the gap to just three points with five minutes left in the match, but it proved to be a bridge too far for the men from East London.
Bulldogs – Tries: Niell Jacobs (2), Johannes Seerane, Gareth Krause, Chumani Booi, penalty try. Conversions: Reinhardt Gerber (5).
Leopards – Tries: Malan van der Merwe, Justin St Jerry, Hennie Skorbinski, Brendon Snyman, Allister Kettledas (2). Conversions: André Pretorius (5). Penalty: Pretorius.
Griffons (31) 50 SWD Eagles (22) 49
Flyhalf Hansie Graaff’s late conversion helped the Griffons fight back at the death to clinch a dramatic 50-49 victory over the SWD Eagles at the North West Stadium.
The home side were trailing by six points with three minutes to go before Japie Nel went over for his second try, converted by Graaff, who sent the ball over from close to the left touchline.
It ended a dramatic encounter in which both sides went all-out in pursuit of a semi-final spot, with the Free Staters coming out on top despite being outscored by eight tries to seven.
The match had begun with the home side racing into a 10-0 lead after six minutes thanks to a penalty from Graaff, who scored 20 points in total, and a converted Nicky Steyn score.
The visitors hit back in the 19th minute when Ghafoer Luckan scored the first of his three tries, followed by a superb solo try by Graaff after he broke the line inside his own half and ran over 50 metres.
Just before the 30-minute mark, Luckan and his fullback teammate Elric van Vuuren hit back with tries for the Eagles, followed by a powerful Nel charge that took him over.
Wing Shane Hancke grabbed the bonus-point try for the Griffons four minutes before the interval but some sloppy play allowed Alshaun Bock to chip over the home defence, collect unmarked and score an easy try on the stroke of halftime when the gap was nine points.
After the restart, Luckan completed his hat-trick, but Sarel Louw helped the host keep their noses in front with another converted try.
Nicolaas Hanekom and Dumisane Meslane scored in quick succession just before the 60-minute mark, with both tries converted by new kicker Burton Francis as the Griffons surrendered the lead for the first time.
Mzoxolo Dyantyi and Werner Griesel then exchanged uncovered tries as the end drew closer and with the visitors still ahead.
Francis, who took over from the inconsistent Van Vuuren, slotted over a penalty that looked to have settled the tie, but Nel and Graaff had the final say.
Griffons – Tries: Werner Griesel, Shane Hancke, Sarel Louw, Nicky Steyn, Japie Nel (2), Hansie Graaff. Conversions: Graaff (6). Penalty: Graaff.
SWD Eagles – Tries: Nico Hanekom, Mzo Dyantyi, Ghafoer Luckan (3), Elric van Vuuren, Dumisane Meslane, Alshaun Bock. Conversions: Elric van Vuuren (2), Burton Francis. Penalty: Burton Francis.
Valke (28) 52 Regent Boland Kavaliers (31) 52
The Valke fought back from a 17-point deficit to secure a 52-52 draw with the Regent Boland Kavaliers in a remarkable match played at the Barnard Stadium.
The two teams combined for 16 tries between them but the Valke had looked to be well behind the eight ball when they slipped to 14-31 after 33 minutes.
But they fought back thanks to tries from flank Frederic Eksteen and replacement Jaun Kotze to reach the break trailing by just three points.
The Valke and the defending champion Kavaliers have not enjoyed the best of seasons with the hosts having won just three matches from 12 heading into Saturday’s contest while the visitors had won three and drawn one game.
But the two teams turned on the entertainment for the sparse 500-strong crowd with Meyer running in two tries for the hosts and right wing Vainon Willis grabbing a brace of five-pointers for the Kavaliers.
The Kavaliers held a 52-47 lead as late as the 73rd minute but the Valke, in keeping with the general theme of the match, fought back to secure the draw when replacement hooker Baksteen van Heerden barrelled his way over in the fourth minute of injury time.
Kotze had the chance to win the match but his attempted conversion drifted wide.
Valke – Tries: Sandile Ngcobo, Karlo Aspeling, Jaun Kotze, Hendrik Meyer (2), Frederik Eksteen, Bruce Miller, Baksteen van Heerden. Conversions: Kotze (4), Aspeling (2).
Kavaliers – Tries: Vainon Willis (2), Siviwe Magaba, Juwell Samuels, Jacquin Jansen, Eric Zana, Elgar Watts, Brendon April. Conversions: Watts (6).