Toyota Cheetahs flyhalf Riaan Smit missed a sideline conversion after the hooter to end a monumental run in this year’s Vodacom Super Rugby tournament for his team, as they narrowly went down 15-13 to the Brumbies at Canberra Stadium on Sunday morning.
Smit’s sideline kick would have drawn the match and sent it into extra time for the first time in playoff history, but while it started on song, it faded in the last seconds to hit the upright and send the Cheetahs out of the competition.
It was a heart-breaking end for the Cheetahs, whose style of play has won many fans this season, and ends their best season ever in the tournament.
And the Brumbies' victory now means they will hop on a plane to Loftus Versfeld, where they will face the Vodacom Bulls on Saturday in the semifinal, while defending champions the Chiefs will host the in-form Crusaders in the mouth-watering other semi in Hamilton on Saturday morning.
But on a chilly late afternoon in Canberra, the Cheetahs will have themselves to blame for the result as they had a chance to steal the win against a below-par Brumbies side.
While at times it seemed they couldn’t do anything right in the eyes of referee Glen Jackson, their inability to turn pressure into points at key moments was what ultimately lost them the game.
Considering the fact that they missed 10 regulation points with the boot on the day, as well as a number of penalties in front of the posts where they opted to tap and go without getting the result, the post-match analysis will point to their inexperience in this area of the game that was a massive factor.
And despite Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen and especially Heinrich Brussow having monster days at the breakdown, the Cheetahs were heavily penalised by Jackson, allowing the Brumbies to win the game with the boot as they simply took points on offer.
The Cheetahs did have one moral victory, in that they outscored the home side two tries to zero, but the penalty count eventually sunk them as the home side simply was better at playing the percentages and controlled most of the territory and possession on the night.
One inexplicable statistic was that from the 14 penalties given against the Cheetahs, they were penalised six times when on attack and in possession, as Jackson allowed way more leeway to the Brumbies' loose forwards at the breakdown than he did the Cheetahs.
With the Brumbies winning the territorial kicking game and playing tactically more astutely than the Cheetahs, it was only some excellent defence on the Bloemfontein side’s part that kept them in the game in the first half.
Christian Lealiifano opened the scoring with a penalty in the second minute, but despite playing most of the half in Cheetahs territory, the Brumbies had very little to show for it.
The visitors upped the ante on their first visit to the Brumbies' half as from first-phase ball, a beauty of a long pass by Willie le Roux allowed Raymond Rhule to scythe his way through the defence and put Johann Sadie away to score.
But Smit’s missed conversion, and the missed penalty kicks he had in the half, were to keep the scoreline very close, with Lealiifano missing two himself before he put the Brumbies ahead with a penalty.
HIT AND MISS AFFAIR
As the Cheetahs searched for parity at the breakdown in the second half, that area of the game became a hit and miss affair, with Jackson penalising both sides.
The Cheetahs managed an odd breakdown penalty to get back into the lead, but only for two minutes as Nick White slotted a long-range penalty to give the lead back to the Brumbies.
When Trevor Nyakane came on, the momentum shifted dramatically, with the Brumbies getting an ascendancy in the scrums, and they began to edge ahead with Coenie Oosthuizen struggling as he moved to tighthead in the process.
Lealiifano stretched the lead to seven, with the Cheetahs increasingly languishing and looking rudderless on attack.
But then the introduction of Sarel Pretorius in the last 20 minutes gave them direction, asked questions of the Brumbies defence and gave the visitors hope.
Immediately it lifted the Cheetahs’ play as they stole two lineouts but despite dominating possession and winning penalties on the Brumbies' line, they opted to tap and go. After several phases, they watched as the ball was lost by Lood de Jager and their efforts were for nought.
A late rally and a superb pass on the outside by Pretorius sent Rayno Benjamin away for the try, and set up Smit’s kick.
But it wasn’t to be and the fairytale had ended, leaving the Bulls as South Africa’s sole remaining hope in the competition.
Brumbies - Penalties: Christian Lealiifano (4), Nic White.
Toyota Cheetahs - Tries: Johann Sadie, Rayno Benjamin. Penalty: Riaan Smit.