The Toyota Cheetahs produced the upset of the 2013 Vodacom Super Rugby season thus far as they downed the Highlanders 36-19 in a stunning performance in Invercargill on Saturday.
Every once in a while the Cheetahs produce a game that simply has you smiling while shaking your head.
With all the odds against them, they produced a performance which – though by no means flawless – was powered by passion and panache to the extent that they dismantled the Highlanders' famed attacking game and played the percentages for a famous win.
Scoring 30 points in the first half won this game for them, but they had enough grit and determination in the second half to hold out as the Highlanders threw everything at them, notching up a massive win against the odds away from home.
Thanks to an exceptional performance from the pack – and Lappies Labuschagne in particular – the Cheetahs managed to upset the home side with their in-your-face approach, and often forced passes that weren’t on, stopping the Highlanders from producing the momentum off which they so desperately feed.
For once the defensive pattern held, and forced the Highlanders into some suicidal mistakes, all of which were picked off by the Cheetahs as they raced to the first-half lead.
Sarel Pretorius may have his defensive frailties, but as an attacker there are few halfbacks in his league.
The Cheetahs' approach was apparent from the start as Pretorius almost collected a kick-and-chase to score in the opening minutes, but managed to grab two more tries before the half was over.
Johan Goosen reveled in the positivity from the team, and slotted all eight of his kicks as he returned to kicking form after a shaky start to the season.
It was his first penalty that gave the visitors the lead from which they never looked back.
The opening try came as the Highlanders' defence were caught napping, as the Cheetahs launched an attack from their own half which saw Labuschagne break Joe Wheeler’s ineffectual tackle before offloading to a flying Pretorius for the opening try.
The Highlanders weren’t to be outdone, and did most of the attacking for the rest of the half, although you wouldn’t say it, as their only reward came as a grubber kick behind the Cheetahs' defence found Kane Poki for the first of his hat-trick of tries.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying, and it isn’t often in these parts that Poki gets a hat-trick and is overshadowed by the efforts of the opposition, but the Cheetahs took the momentum when a poor chip by Lima Sopoaga was charged down by Robert Ebersohn, who picked up the ball on the bounce with one hand and ran through to score untouched.
It got worse for the home side when Willie le Roux stuck a hand to stop a final scoring pass from the Highlanders and the ball dropped into Pretorius’s lap and he sped away to score.
Another Goosen penalty later and the Cheetahs turned 30-7 ahead, hoping to stay ahead as the inevitable backlash came in the second half.
But when it did come – and Poki did manage to complete the hat-trick – it came too late as the defence held firm and the Highlanders failed to put anything meaningful together to trouble the scoreboard.
The Cheetahs had the bonus of a second-half performance by Heinrich Brussow, returning from injury without blemish, and a lovely cameo of turnovers from Coenie Oosthuizen off the bench.
Two late penalties by Goosen made it a certainty, and while the Highlanders were left wondering how it happened, the Cheetahs were off to celebrate a wonderful victory.
Their challenge is to turn this performance into consistency, and if they can do that, there will be a number of teams that won’t relish facing them, either at home and away.
Highlanders – Tries: Kade Poki (3). Conversions: Lima Sopoaga, Colin Slade.
Cheetahs – Tries: Sarel Pretorius (2), Robert Ebersohn. Conversions: Johan Goosen (3). Penalties: Goosen (5).