The Toyota Cheetahs produced an exceptional performance to down the Blues 34-13 and ensure they qualified for the Vodacom Super Rugby playoff rounds for the first time.
The victory, coupled with the four points they will receive next week from their bye, puts them beyond the reach of sides like the Blues, Waratahs and Sharks and ensures that the top six has been settled a week before the end.
It also ensures that there will be two South African teams in the playoff series, and it is the first time in their history that the Cheetahs have qualified for this stage of the competition.
In front of a disappointing crowd in Bloemfontein, the Cheetahs had their forwards to thank as they produced a superb mix of physicality and precision up front, turned over too many balls to count and then defended like demons in the time they were without the ball to ensure they dominated the game throughout.
Testament to this was not only the three tries they scored, but at least six other chances that went begging – including Ligtoring Landman and Johann Sadie who were both over the line and had TMO decisions go against them after they believed they had scored.
There is no doubt this was a massive game for the Cheetahs. After their loss to the Stormers last week, the mental pressure associated with bouncing back against a dangerous team like the Blues was immense.
Had they lost they would almost certainly have been overtaken by one of the chasing pack and the dream may have been lost forever.
But that is precisely why this performance should not be underestimated. The Cheetahs have done what they have done all season: they dug deep, they found their inner desire and they lifted their game to meet the opposition head on.
Considering how well they played overseas they will now use the bye to back themselves in a once-off match - likely to be in the Antipodes – and with nothing to lose, have everything to gain.
Added to this composure was the rock-solid boot of Riaan Smit, who contributed 19 points through two conversions and five penalties.
The penalties came at crucial stages in the match, as the Cheetahs were able to build an innings and keep their lead, making the Blues increasingly desperate.
Smit opened the scoring with a penalty after a minute, putting his side straight onto the board and showing their intent in the game. But it was the Blues who through a stroke of luck managed to score the first try.
After Hennie Daniller had taken an up and under well, he fell awkwardly and was turned by the New Zealanders, who stole the ball and immediately sent it wide, although replays showed there was some obstruction in the lead-up to the try.
The final pass from Francis Saili to Jamison Gibson-Park was superb, putting the halfback away without a finger being laid on him.
Smit brought the Cheetahs back to within one point before they put their foot on the accelerator and five metres from the Blues' line managed a tighthead, with No 8 Phillip van der Walt picking up the ball and powering his way over the line from close range.
Baden Kerr added three points through a penalty for the Blues before Smit’s boot put the Cheetahs nine points up at the break through two well struck penalties.
At 19-10 up the Cheetahs were in control of the game, and the scoreline moved to 22-13 with a penalty apiece in early second-half play before the Cheetahs took hold of the game in the 74th minute to ensure their playoff spot.
After Daniller fielded a kick downfield, some good interplay between Coenie Oosthuizen and Trevor Nyakane saw a ruck formed five metres out, and it wasn’t long before Sarel Pretorius saw a gap and took it for his side’s second try.
But the coup de grace came in the 77th minute as Boom Prinsloo picked the ball up close to the line, and barged forward, wrestling his way through three defenders to plant the ball behind the tryline to top off a great afternoon in Bloemfontein.
The Cheetahs will now enjoy the week off but know once other teams finish their campaign next weekend, they will for the first time have something to look forward to at the business end of the competition.
Toyota Cheetahs – Tries: Phillip van der Walt, Sarel Pretorius, Boom Prinsloo. Conversions: Riaan Smit (2). Penalties: Smit (5).
Blues – Try: Jamison Gibson-Park. Conversions: Baden Kerr. Penalties: Kerr (2).