Four tries by the Toyota Free State XV were enough to see off a brave Border Bulldogs outfit by a score of 26-25 (halftime 12-12) in their thrilling Vodacom Cup match at the University of Fort Hare in Alice on Saturday.
Captain Tertius Daniller scored a first-half brace to square up the contest before halftime. The men from the Free State then seized the advantage with two second-half tries, and despite a late score from Bulldogs substitute Ernst Landendorf, the visitors were able to hold on for the narrowest of victories.
It was Border who made the early running, as the home fans had to wait just two minutes for their team’s first try as inside centre Niell Jacobs crossed the whitewash. Although flyhalf Karlo Aspelling was unable to convert, the hosts continued to apply the pressure on their opponents, and hooker Mkhafu Khwezilokusa’s 14th minute try left the Free State outfit shell-shocked.
Aspelling made no mistake with his second conversion attempt, and the Bulldogs’ good work had been rewarded with a 12-point lead.
Free State got back into the game in the 20th minute though, as Daniller scored his first after some good build-up from his team. Flyhalf Elgar Watts slotted the resultant conversion, and the game began to sway in favour of the visitors. The impressive Daniller had his brace in the 30th minute to restore parity, but Watts’s miss from the ensuing conversion meant the teams went into the break with the game on a knife edge at 12-12.
The man to break the deadlock in the second period was substitute Noel Marx, as his 57th minute try – just seven minutes after coming onto the field – catapulted his team into a 19-12 lead.
Aspelling was able to keep his team in sight, however, and his penalties in the 60th and 66th minutes meant it was a one-point ball game as the clock wound down.
The visitors began to apply the pressure though, and with eight minutes remaining centre Joubert Engelbrecht scored a crucial try. As Watts had left the field, winger Nico Scheepers took over the kicking duties and his conversion steered his team to an all-important eight-point lead.
The gallant Bulldogs, with their backs very much against the wall, refused to give up, and the home fans had reason to believe when Landendorf scored in the 76th minute. The try was duly converted, but with time against them, the late surge was not enough, and Free State were able to see out the closing minutes to clinch a dramatic win.
The Bulldogs will no doubt take great heart from the performance, and the narrow reverse yielded their first point of the campaign.
Free State, meanwhile, move up to fourth in the South Section standings with the bonus-point win, but have been cut 10 points adrift from the table-topping Sharks XV.
Border Bulldogs – Tries: Niell Jacobs, Mkhafu Khwezilokusa, Ernst Landendorf; Conversions: Karlo Aspelling (2); Penalties: Karlo Aspelling (2)
Toyota Free State XV – Tries: Tertius Daniller (2), Noel Marx, Joubert Engelbrecht; Conversions: Elgar Watts, Nico Scheepers (2)