The Toyota Cheetahs confounded the expectations by racing to a big lead but they were denied at the death as the Chiefs showed their championship qualities by fighting back to grab a 43-all draw in a pulsating Vodacom Super Rugby match in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
The Cheetahs have never beaten the Chiefs, who are playing for their third successive Super Rugby title this season, and before the game you wouldn’t have had many people predicting they would break that duck.
During their four-match overseas tour, the Cheetahs were horrible, and nothing they did while away suggested they might turn it around at home.
However this is a year where home-ground advantage has been massive in this competition, and the Cheetahs effectively showed what a difference 14 000 kilometres and the seven days they had off for their bye can make as they played brilliant rugby in the first half to build a stunning 34-10 lead at halftime.
They had their bonus point for scoring four tries booked before the break, Boom Prinsloo dotting down as the Cheetahs forwards surged over the line to make the gap 24 points.
But you sensed Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske knew something when he said at the start of the second half that the game wasn’t over, and so it proved.
The Chiefs dominated the first 10 minutes of the second half but were just unable to get across the line. When they were finally able to cross for a try to scrumhalf August Pulu, however, it represented the start of a thrilling fightback, with the Chiefs being as impressive in the second half as the Cheetahs were in the first.
It was outstanding rugby from the Chiefs, who delivered an object lesson to the South African side on how to keep the ball moving towards space, drawing the man, offloading in the tackle and displaying patience on attack.
The Cheetahs hung in though, and just when it seemed they might lose when a Chiefs try cut the lead to just one point with 10 minutes remaining, the Cheetahs rediscovered the energy they needed to get back into the Chiefs half.
What followed was a brace of penalties to flyhalf Johan Goosen, which left the Chiefs in a position where they couldn’t win the game as they trailed by seven with three minutes to go.
That didn’t deter the Chiefs though, and as they did the previous week against the Bulls, they played scintillating rugby at the death before Tim Nanai-Williams ghosted through to score between the uprights after the hooter.
That left Aaron Cruden to kick the conversion from in front, which he duly did, leaving the Cheetahs with a share of the spoils, which is probably something they would have bought had it been offered to them before the game.
The Cheetahs were certainly a new look team in that first half, with their strong scrum dominating and their lineout also exerting pressure on the Chiefs.
The possession statistics with a quarter of the match gone read 66% territory to the Cheetahs and a similar advantage when it came to possession, with the Chiefs repeatedly surrendering momentum through conceding penalties at the scrums.
The Cheetahs were also all over them on defence, and at some stages it was as if the home players were lining up to gang tackle the Chiefs players.
The Chiefs looked shell-shocked and stunned in the face of the onslaught, and they made uncharacteristic errors that at that stage made them resemble anything but the champion outfit they are.
After just seven minutes the Cheetahs scored their first try, with Sarel Pretorius, the pick of the Cheetahs players in the first half, selling the Chiefs defenders a dummy after the forwards had rumbled it up.
Goosen converted to make it 7-0, and although the Chiefs did pull back a penalty, it was soon 14-3 as Rayno Benjamin crossed in the left corner after a counter-attack sparked by the irrepressible Willie le Roux.
A Goosen penalty stretched it to 17-3 after 19 minutes before Pulu, who was as impressive at halfback for the Chiefs as Pretorius was in the Cheetahs No 9 jersey, wriggled his way around the side of a ruck to cut the deficit to seven points.
That though was the last Chiefs score of the half, with another Goosen penalty being followed by some quick thinking from Pretorius.
Chiefs fullback Gareth Anscombe had carried the ball over in the right corner in racing back for a well-targeted Cheetahs kick, and the Cheetahs were awarded a penalty at the scrum.
As the Chiefs players bickered with referee Craig Joubert over the penalty, Pretorius took the tap and dived over for the try, and then another penalty set up try No 4 as a lineout was set up near the Chiefs line – the left corner this time – and the Cheetahs drove over the line.
From then on it was mostly the Chiefs, with the score in the match from that point on being 33-9 in favour of the visitors.
They reversed most of the statistics in that second period, with the Cheetahs hardly getting their hands on the ball until the last 10 minutes, when the Chiefs made mistakes that allowed the Cheetahs to wriggle off the hook and probably saved them from defeat.
The Chiefs scored six tries to four and in doing so made sure they added a bonus point to their two for the draw, which means they get six points from their trip to South Africa as they got exactly the same harvest from their trip to Loftus the previous week.
CHEETAHS – Tries: Sarel Pretorius 2, Rayno Benjamin and Boom Prinsloo; Conversions: Johan Goosen 4; Penalties: Johan Goosen 5.
CHIEFS – Tries: August Pulu 2, Aeseli Tikoirotuma 2 and Tim Nanai-Williams 2; Conversions: Aaron Cruden 5; Penalty: Aaron Cruden.