The Western Force continued to make a positive impression on the Vodacom Super Rugby season by laying their marker in the first half before running out 23-16 winners over the Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday evening.
It was the first Western Force win in Bloemfontein since 2008, and their second successive victory over a South African team in a year where they have been the surprise package in the competition.
After this win, they lift themselves to fourth position on the overall log and are still in touch with Australian conference leaders, the Brumbies.
It was easy to see in this match what has created that success, with the Force’s superiority built around their patience on defence and the resultant frequency with which they were able to win turn-over ball on the ground.
Matt Hodgson was the main source of that avenue of possession or momentum shifting for the Force, who also impressed with their ability to get across the advantage line and pass the ball through the tackle, particularly in the first half.
The Force are a markedly improved team on last year and the two South Africans in the coaching room can take massive credit as it was their areas of expertise, defence and backline play, that shone through against the Cheetahs.
The Cheetahs by contrast didn’t clean out effectively at the breakdowns and were punished. They also seemed to lack a bit of the energy with which they started the games against South African opponents the Stormers and the Bulls in recent weeks.
Significantly, as they did last week, the Cheetahs also struggled in the scrums, the second time that has happened to a South African team against an Australian one this weekend after the Sharks had some torrid moments against the Brumbies.
In contrast though to their matches against New Zealand opposition on their home field during the course of the last five weeks, the Cheetahs did finish strongly and recovered well from what at one stage was a 13 point deficit.
Unfortunately they were denied by what they would have considered a debatable TMO call, but full marks to the Force for the way the temperament they showed in hanging on in the face of fatigue and closing the game out.
The Cheetahs started badly, and were penalised at breakdown in front of posts, former Cheetahs player Sias Ebersohn raising the flags for his new team.
Talking about flyhalves, it was a quiet return to top rugby after injury for Springbok flyhalf Johan Goosen, who missed an early penalty that would have been an early equaliser and who didn’t really stamp any kind of authority on the game.
The Cheetahs had launched an impressive attack down the left flank before that Goosen penalty, which he hit poorly and pushed low and to the left.
The Cheetahs persisted with some good attacking play and another penalty, this time almost right in front, gave Goosen the opportunity to atone for his earlier miss and the scores were locked at 3-all.
The first signs of the Force attacking potency came through a move that led to a disallowed try, Kyle Godwin going over after his teammates had produced an excellent example of how to let the ball do the work in moving the ball down the line and towards space.
However, Ebersohn had kicked the ball against a teammate standing in front of him in the buildup, and the try was rightly disallowed by the TMO on the basis that it was accidental offside.
But if they were disappointed it didn’t seem to deter the Force, who promptly turned over a Cheetahs scrum. They were on the charge at that stage, and Nick Cummins was held up just short as the Force continued to press for the try.
Ebersohn kicked a penalty after 20 minutes to make it 6-3, and then came a telling Hodgson turn-over that led to the first try of the match.
It followed a great break from the Cheetahs frontranker, Oosthuizen, who did nothing wrong in the way he laid the ball back, but he had no teammates with him and Hodgson came through and picked it up.
Former Western Province centre Marcel Brache carried it on with a good win and the ball eventually went, via an offload in the tackle out wide, to fullback Jayden Hayward, who spun over in the corner. The conversion made it 13-3 and then it was 16-3 three minutes before halftime as the Force continued to pile on the pressure.
The Cheetahs managed to cut the deficit back to 10 points with a penalty on the stroke of halftime (16-6) but the Force were well in control.
The Cheetahs came back into the game straight after halftime as they started to string their phases together and started to at last make some impression on the Force defence.
The pressure paid off when Matt Hodgson was carded for a breakdown misdemeanor in a deep defensive position and playing 15 against 14, Boom Prinsloo was able to dot down as the Cheetahs picked and drove near the Force line.
The Goosen conversion brought the Cheetahs to within three points of the Force with 34 minutes remaining in the game and they would have been boosted by that as the Force had been so significantly better than them in the first half.
However, the Cheetahs were unable to exploit their advantage in numbers further, and it was in fact the Force who made the Cheetahs look like they may be short of numbers when they scored their next try.
The Cheetahs had been looking well in control when the two teams indulged in a kicking competition, with the ball being kicked back and forth before eventually Hennie Danniller lost patience and decided to run it up.
The Cheetahs made ground across the advantage line initially, but later in the movement the Force intercepted, and they always seemed to have an advantage in numbers after they’d done that, with mini cult hero Cummins having no defenders in front of him once he had received a pass from a breakdown a couple of metres out and he romped over in the left corner and dotted near the posts.
The conversion from Ebersohn restored the 10-point advantage for the Force, and although Goosen did kick a penalty to cut the Force advantage back to seven, the Force seemed to regain their authority once Hodgson came back onto the field.
But as the game drew on they looked like they were starting to fade, and they weren’t helped by the repeated skew throws at the lineouts that prevented them from exiting when they were defending against the strong finishing Cheetahs in the last quarter of an hour.
The Cheetahs may have considered themselves unlucky when the TMO ruled against what initially looked a good try to Oosthuizen.
The prop reached out to ground the ball under the posts as he barged through and ran over a Force defender as again the Cheetahs got their pick and drive right, but the replay showed it was grounded just short and rolled onto the line.
What might have aggrieved the Cheetahs was the perception that in real time it looked a legitimate try with the ball reaching the line through momentum. According to what Shaun Veldsman saw in the slow motion replay, however, it was the technically correct decision.
The Cheetahs had a penalty opportunity deep in the Force after that but they elected not to kick for posts.
On the night the Force defence was resisting most of the Cheetahs’ attacks so perhaps the hosts would have been better off kicking the penalty and creating a bit of extra pressure on the Force by shrinking the lead to just four points.
Toyota Cheetahs - Tries: Boom Prinsloo. Conversions: Johan Goosen. Penalties: Goosen (3).
Western Force - Tries: Jayden Hayward, Nick Cummins. Conversions: Sias Ebersohn (2). Penalties: Ebersohn (3).