The Toyota Cheetahs took a major blow to their hopes of winning the South African conference as they went down 34-39 to the Hurricanes in their Vodacom Super Rugby match in Bloemfontein on Friday night.
Elgar Watts did sink a penalty on fulltime to give them a crucial bonus point, but it was a far cry from what they had targeted from their home games as the tournament heads into the business end.
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske made it clear in the week that their home games were at a premium, and the loss certainly does dent their hopes as they fell five points behind the Bulls, who have also played one game fewer than them and are on their final bye this weekend.
In the week, Drotske also said how the Cheetahs would be looking to follow the Bulls' lead and use both their scrum and rolling maul as attacking weapons, but what transpired was totally the opposite as the Hurricanes were much more disciplined and dangerous in the counter attack.
The Cheetahs' Achilles heel has always been the first 10 minutes after the break, but this time their downfall came in minutes 48 to 52 as they gave away two tries in those four minutes and watched the momentum totally shift to the Hurricanes.
From there they were forced to play catch-up and while they did come back strongly – most notably through strong performances by Coenie Oosthuizen, Adriaan Strauss and Robert Ebersohn – it was never going to be enough.
The Canes though secured victory by forcing the Cheetahs into mistakes, and then pouncing from them, with lock Jeremy Thrush, captain Victor Vito and flyhalf Beauden Barrett having particularly strong games.
While both sides looked for gaps in the first half, the sparring didn’t land any big blows, and it wasn’t surprising that the teams went into the break at 12-all, four penalties apiece to Barrett and Burton Francis, with the Cheetahs escaping without being punished when Ebersohn was sinbinned in the half for a deliberate knockdown.
But when the second half started, the fireworks began and it was the Hurricanes who landed the telling blows after some poor defence from the Cheetahs.
A deft chip by Barrett was fielded by Raymond Rhule, who inexplicably let the ball bounce first before throwing it under pressure to Francis, with the latter’s only option being to kick it out metres from his own line.
The Canes took the ball and were held up over the line, but after the scrum reset, it was a matter of seconds before Barrett found a gap and went over from close range.
A few minutes later an aimless kick by Willie le Roux was exploited by the Hurricanes as it was flung wide to Julian Savea, who booted ahead with Le Roux off his wing and no defender covering for him.
The All Black winger sprinted easily past Sarel Pretorius to win the race and take the score from 12-all to 22-12 in the Canes' favour.
Barrett missed both conversions and the Cheetahs hit right back as Oosthuizen, who was in bullocking form, charged over from close range to bring them within three.
TJ Perenara added a third try with a snipe close to the line and Barrett extended the lead with a penalty before the killer blow was landed by captain Vito, after the Cheetahs tried a suicidal run from their own line and Johann Sadie’s pass was knocked back by Thrush, who collected and offloaded to Vito for an easy five-metre run to the line.
Twenty points up with 15 to go, the Cheetahs did their best to come back into the game, with Oosthuizen adding a second improbable try through another power run close to the line and in the desperation, Robert Ebersohn went over in the corner after some quick thinking from a tap penalty.
But when Watts missed the conversion, the Cheetahs' hopes of winning the game were over, and it was a no-brainer when they decided to settle for a bonus point in the final minute, one that could still help them make the playoffs.
Toyota Cheetahs – Tries: Coenie Oosthuizen (2), Robert Ebersohn. Conversions: Elgar Watts (2). Penalties: Burton Francis (4), Watts.
Hurricanes – Try: Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, TJ Perenara, Victor Vito. Conversions: Barrett (2). Penalties: Barrett (5).