Toyota Cheetahs flyhalf Burton Francis showed he has nerves of steel to put over a sideline penalty in the 82nd minute and give his team a narrow 26-24 win over the DHL Stormers in their Vodacom Super Rugby showdown in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Francis, who has represented the Bulls, Lions and Stormers before moving to Bloemfontein, turned the Cheetahs nightmare into a dream, as he was gifted the opportunity after the hooter when Damian De Allende was pinned for not releasing a player at the ruck.
In De Allende’s defence, the ruling was not consistent with the way the breakdown had been reffed before, but probably fair on a night when there were several massive and controversial calls by referee Stuart Berry which threatened to take away from the intense contest on the field.
Berry didn’t have his best night, allowed a try that shouldn’t have been and perplexed with a number of calls – mostly against the home side – that resulted in points, making the fightback by the Cheetahs even more enterprising, as both teams went at each other with everything they had.
But in the end Francis missed with a dropgoal from close out three minutes before the end, and it took a monster scrum from the Cheetahs to win the ball and set up the multi-phase move that led to the crucial penalty, and the victory.
It means the Cheetahs have stopped a seven-game losing streak against the Stormers, and continued their winning streak in this year’s competition to five games in a row now. It also means they have cemented themselves as genuine conference contenders, while the Stormers have slumped to their fourth loss in this year’s competition, and will need a good tour overseas to challenge for the conference title.
Still on a night where every point was vital, the Stormers may rue not taking the penalties at goal in the first half as they searched to cross the tryline.
And the Stormers had the perfect start as well, soaking up early Cheetah pressure before Joe Pietersen put them on the board with a penalty.
But an error deep in the Cheetahs 22 on attack was turned over, and hacked ahead with Piet van Zyl securing the ball in terrier fashion, before moving it wide to Robert Ebersohn, who went over in the corner.
A poor clearance kick by Willie le Roux brought the Stormers back into the lead as it fell perfectly for Nick Groom, who chipped over the defence and collected, passing to Deon Fourie, who surged up to a metre from the line, leaving Juan de Jongh to pick up and dive over from close range for the try.
But then the most controversial moment arrived, as Berry allowed a try that shouldn’t have been after Gio Aplon made some metres upfield before grubbering the ball, and kicking it ahead, straight into two of his own players. But referee Berry never flinched and awarded a penalty against the Cheetahs when it should have been the other way around. From the ensuing tap, it was De Jongh who went over for his second try, while the rest of the country sat gobsmacked at the missed infringement.
In giving the penalty, the TMO was powerless to intercede and the try stood, much to the dismay of the Cheetahs players.
At 15-7 in the lead, the Stormers would have felt happy with their performance in the first half, but it was all the home side as they emerged from the tunnel, storming back to take the lead.
Francis opened the half with a penalty after a dangerous tackle by Elton Jantjies and within seconds of getting onto the field, Sarel Pretorius stole the ball as Groom attempted a box kick, taking it from his hands and sprinted to the corner to score.
The conversion was good and the Cheetahs were back in the lead 17-15, although Pretorius looked to have pulled a hamstring in the process, which forced Rayno Benjamin to play scrumhalf for the rest of the match.
Two more penalties by Pietersen, put the Stormers into a 21-17 lead, with Francis adding a penalty shortly afterwards before stealing the lead with a drop goal to make it 23-21.
The Stormers won a crucial penalty with five minutes to play, although it looked as if Deon Fourie hadn’t released the ball after going to ground before playing it again, but Pietersen put them back into the lead another time.
And then there was the last-gasp attempts. First the missed drop goal and then the scrum and attack that led to the penalty.
The Cheetahs celebrated as if they had won a final. They hadn’t, but they had crossed a rubicon that will give them unbelievable belief.
The opposite is true for the Stormers, who are still searching for their consistency and belief. Time is ticking on their season, making losses like this costly, and raising the stakes for them in their remaining games.
TOYOTA CHEETAHS – Tries:Robert Ebersohn, Sarel Pretorius. Conversions: Burton Francis (2). Drop Goal: Francis. Penalties: Francis(3).
DHL STORMERS – Tries: Juan de Jiongh (2). Conversion: Joe Pietersen. Penalties: Pietersen (4)