The Toyota Cheetahs confirmed their status as the turn-over kings of Vodacom Super Rugby as they powered to a 26-12 win over the Southern Kings at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein on Saturday night.
Perhaps they will rue the opportunity that was missed in terms of the four-try bonus point, for they crossed for their third with well over half an hour remaining and looked on course to making it a full house. What would have frustrated them was that they did have plenty of opportunities to score and were over the line on at least one occasion without being able to capitalise fully on their dominance.
But at least the Cheetahs successfully negotiated the potential banana peel that lay in their path to ensure they take their week off in a strong position just behind the Vodacom Bulls on the conference table.
It took a while for the home team to wear down a resilient Kings team that played much better than the previous week, when they lost 34-0 to the Bulls at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. The doughty defence of the early matches and most of the overseas tour was back, and their physical approach would have left the Cheetahs in no doubt that they were in a game. It was the Cheetahs though who were always that much sharper and more clinical.
Unlike seven days earlier, the Kings were strong at the kick-off, and were presented with a penalty chance off an early high tackle ruling that Demetri Catrakilis missed after two minutes.
The Kings carried the ball up strongly and certainly their ball retention has improved over the past month or so. However, the Cheetahs killed them at the turn-over, not just halting the Kings' momentum in this area of the game, but also profiting from their brilliant counter-attacking.
And there was no better example than the break-out try that they scored after seven minutes. The Kings were inside the Cheetahs 22 when Heinrich Brussow turned over their ball at the breakdown and thus started a spectacular upfield sweep that was spearheaded by scrumhalf Piet van Zyl running past Kings prop Schalk Ferreira, who found himself in the midfield.
Van Zyl found Raymond Rhule and another bit of interplay between the two followed before Rhule, after being tackled just short, was able to let momentum carry him near enough to the tryline for him to reach out and dot down.
The Kings did well in the lineouts, where they did place the Cheetahs under some pressure, and the penalty malaise that blighted the Kings overseas appears to have been cured. In the first half, before later pressure from the Cheetahs reversed it, it was the Kings who benefitted from the most penalties, and one of those was converted by Catrakilis in the 10th minute to cut the Cheetahs lead to 5-3.
The two flyhalves traded further penalties to make it 8-6 to the Cheetahs after 28 minutes, and the Port Elizabeth team was still well in the game as they competed well with the conference contenders.
But an untidy knock back from a lineout by the Kings saw the Cheetahs pounce, with Ferreira’s partial intercept and knock down of a Cheetahs pass as they mounted the attack ultimately costing the Kings as the ball rolled back into an area where the visiting defence was disorganised enough for the Cheetahs to put Lappies Labuschagne in at the corner flag.
Catrakilis drew three points back with another penalty shortly before the break to make it 15-9 to the Cheetahs at the halfway mark, with Catrakilis’s boot keeping the Kings in the game.
The Kings did have their moments in the half, and on a couple of occasions built up patiently and impressively, but on each occasion the Cheetahs slowed up the ball just enough to negate them as a scoring threat.
The second half though belonged to the Cheetahs, certainly until the last 10 minutes. Not for nothing is Willie le Roux rated by many critics as South Africa’ s most dangerous attacking player, but it was the work of his teammates that created the opportunity that he scored off to put the Cheetahs 11 points clear not long after halftime.
The Cheetahs did frequently have the Kings defence scrambling with their ability to move the ball quickly through the hands to create the extra man situation, and it was a long scramble for the Kings as the Cheetahs built up through several phases before eventually the ball got to Le Roux metres from the line and a little feint gave him the space to wriggle forward and reach out for the try.
After that though the Cheetahs, always the much more inventive of the two teams on attack, struggled to break open a Kings team that was tight on defence and effective in slowing the game down and thereafter it was just goalkicks that kept the scoreboard moving for both teams.
The Kings had a good chance of grabbing a converted try that would have clinched them a bonus point for losing by seven points or less wasted by a poor pass from Catrakilis when there was a clear overlap outside him and just metres to run to the Cheetahs’ line. As they have tended to in most games they have played, it was the Kings who finished the stronger but that only gave the Cheetahs the chance to showcase the area where they have made most progress this year – namely their defence.
One concern for the Cheetahs will be the number of injuries suffered during the course of the game and they will be relieved now to have a week off to recharge and rehabilitate after a quite daunting 10 week sequence of consecutive matches. Flanker Lappies Labuschagne, who pulled up just before halftime, will be the main concern as he does have a massive influence on the effectiveness of the Cheetahs’ style of play.
However the word that came back from the Cheetahs medical staff during the course of the game was that the injury wasn’t as bad as it looked and if he is ruled out of any games after the Cheetahs come back after the bye, it shouldn’t be too many.
With a guaranteed four points for the bye next week, the Cheetahs are certainly in a strong position on the South African conference table and coach Naka Drotske should be confident now that his team can do what many would have considered impossible at the start of the season by booking themselves automatic home ground in the first playoff game by topping the conference.
Toyota Cheetahs – Tries: Raymond Rhule, Pieter Labuschagne, Willie le Roux. Conversion: Burton Francis. Penalties: Francis (3).
Southern Kings – Penalties: Demetri Catrakilis (4).