The Toyota Cheetahs will return to South Africa with a record from their overseas Vodacom Super Rugby tour that most would have believed impossible following a hard-fought 19–10 win over the Western Force in Perth on Saturday night.
Considering who they were playing and their past record on tour, it might have been optimistic to believe the Cheetahs would come away with a maximum of two wins, let alone the three on the trot that they have now notched up since their unexpectedly one-sided win over the Highlanders in Invercargill a fortnight ago.
The Waratahs and now the Force have followed as victims of a Cheetahs team that has never had it so good before on an overseas tour, with just the 45-3 defeat to the champion Chiefs in the opening match as a blemish on their record.
They now return to Bloemfontein to face the Melbourne Rebels and the Stormers in home matches and they should do so with a lot of confidence.
The Cheetahs’ eye for opportunistic scores off opposition mistakes was again in evidence, but this time it was much later in the game, with the Western Force dropping a ball as they played catch-up, which was kicked through for Cheetahs wing Willie le Roux to grab on the bounce and go over and score between the posts.
That made it a nine-point ball game with less than two minutes to go, and there was good reason for the Cheetahs coaching staff to head down to the touchline to start their celebrations.
The Cheetahs had snuck home through a last-gasp score in Sydney the week before, so they are starting to do what opponents used to do to them.
The so near and yet so far prognosis became a perennial lament for the Cheetahs in the past, but there are elements of their game that have turned that around.
They are still prone to run from almost anywhere, and it nearly cost them the game as some quite silly running from near their own tryline allowed the try that Winston Stanley scored to give his team a 7-6 halftime lead.
But it’s been the quality of the Cheetahs' defensive game that has improved beyond measure this year, and it was the pressure they applied with their tackling that enabled them to win a match which for much of the way looked like it might be one of those final-game-of-tour bridge-too-far stories.
POSSESSION AND TERRITORIAL DOMINANCE
Certainly the Western Force had more than enough possession to win it, but they just couldn’t make proper use of what their coach Michael Foley at halftime referred to as “our possessions”.
Based on possession and territorial dominance, they certainly could have been further than one point ahead at halftime.
Here former Cheetahs player Sias Ebersohn, playing at flyhalf in this one for the Western Force, was as much a villain as a hero for the hosts.
While his field kicking game was mostly spot on, and some of the kick-and-chasing nearly led to Force points, he also missed two first-half kicks at goal that might have made a difference in the end.
The first one was a particularly easy kick from just to the left of the posts in the ninth minute. Then followed an excellent kick from him onto a Cheetahs loose-forward that was well followed by Alfie Malfi in the left corner, and the penalty that was forced gave him an opportunity to atone from his earlier miss. Again the kick went across the front of the posts.
The Cheetahs started coming back into it after that, and a great upfield sweep off a tap penalty saw them apply the pressure that enabled them to get the first points of the match – something they have managed in every game this season – in the 25th minute.
The Cheetahs looked to be gaining momentum which is why the try they gave away was so unforgiveable.
In trying to run out from their own quarter, the Cheetahs passed the ball onto a Western Force player, it bounced off him and the ball was moved quickly for Stanley to round Sarel Pretorius for the try in the corner.
This time Ebersohn did atone for his earlier misses by kicking the conversion from the touchline.
After that the Force had plenty of ball to play with but were held up by a combination of the well organised and tigerish Cheetahs defence as well as a busy performance at the breakdown from Springbok flanker Heinrich Brussow, who was responsible for several turnovers and helped prevent the Force from getting any momentum.
A scrum penalty for the Cheetahs in the 31st minute enabled them to get back into Force territory and a lineout penalty then enabled them to cut the deficit to one point with another successful kick from Riaan Smit.
The only blot on the Brussow copybook was a 57th-minute penalty that he conceded as the Cheetahs scrambled to recover from a break effected by Force No 8 Richard Brown.
Ebersohn was off the field at the time so replacement Jayden Hayward stepped up to kick the three pointer that made it a four-point game.
At that stage you could have taken poison on the Force winning as the Cheetahs were looking fatigued. The end-of-tour blues appeared to have arrived.
But full marks to the Cheetahs for their determination, as well as Naka Drotske’s timing of his substitutions, for it was the visitors who finished the stronger.
The Cheetahs were helped by a Hayward miss from in front when Robert Ebersohn was penalised for coming in from the side at a loose scrum as the Force started to gain ascendancy.
After that though much of the play was in the Force half, and as the clock wound down you could sense the hunger of the Cheetahs erasing any feelings of tiredness.
They had a chance to kick a penalty with 12 minutes to go but the momentum they appeared to be enjoying on attack prompted Adriaan Strauss to opt for a quick tap.
When that didn’t come to anything and another chance was offered, the Cheetahs had no hesitation in asking Smit to kick the three points.
Almost immediately the Force then conceded a penalty in the middle of the field that Smit kicked from 45 metres to put his team into the lead.
Try as they might the Force couldn’t breach the Cheetahs' defence as they tried desperately to re-establish their advantage, and then came the Le Roux try that clinched it.
Force – Try: Winston Stanley. Conversion: Sias Ebersohn. Penalty: Jayden Hayward.
Toyota Cheetahs – Try: Willie le Roux. Conversion: Riaan Smit. Penalties: Riaan Smit (4).