Cheetahs edge Lions in Currie Cup thriller
Three yellow cards, two of them on the advice of the touch judges, played a huge part in the Absa Currie Cup final played at Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein on Saturday, which saw the Free State Cheetahs beat the Lions 20-18.
The second half saw some excellent rugby, which was not always the case before the break. The Cheetahs, with the victory, retained their hold on the Currie Cup that they had shared with the Blue Bulls in the 2006 final.
In terms of yellow cards, the Cheetahs conceded 12 points in the time that number eight Darron Nell spent in the sin bin, and the Lions’ stranglehold continued when winger Eddie Fredericks was sent off just after Nell’s bin time had expired.
Lions wing Ryno Benjamin was carded seven minutes from time for a dangerous tackle, which left his side a man short during a series of Cheetahs attacks.
Hendro Scholtz, playing in his 100th game for the Cheetahs, led his team out to a tumultuous welcome from the orange-clad supporters on a hard field in mint condition—ideal for running rugby. And then, just as both sides were on the field, the World Cup champion Springboks came through the gates to take up their seats next to the field.
As in the semifinal against the Blue Bulls, the kick-off was delayed—this time for just five minutes and not 30.
But it was a final, after all, and little running rugby was seen in the period before half-time. The Cheetahs took it deep on a number of occasions, but one could feel the tension and uncertainty of both sides to really play freely.
The Cheetahs used their first kick-off to good advantage, and after three minutes, spent mostly in the Lions’ 22, a high kick on left wing Benjamin was knocked on. A minute of forward exchanges resulted in a penalty to Willem de Waal, and after six minutes the Cheetahs were up 3-0.
But then Louis Strydom reciprocated, virtually from the restart, and from the ensuing play the Lions got their hands on the ball for the first time from phased play.
After 15 minutes, the Lions still looked a little tentative, with most of the structured play coming from the home side, who looked dangerous on a number of occasions.
With the Lions winning one of the Cheetahs’ line-outs and disrupting the next, the Cheetahs could not capitalise, and De Waal missed a drop goal attempt, as did Strydom, who twice didn’t find the mark on the night.
Thereafter the Lions started stringing some phases together, putting the Cheetahs under immense pressure, with Springbok Jaco Pretorius prominent on a number of occasions.
There was little chance to run, with some tight defence from both sides. With eight minutes to go in the first half, De Waal made it 6-3, probably deserved on the play but perhaps a little fortuitous after the Lions’ surges.
Strydom answered De Waal’s boomers with some long kicks of his own, but too often they didn’t find touch, giving the Cheetahs the opportunity to counter-attack.
When Strydom missed from an angle about four minutes before the break, the Cheetahs went back on the attack but poor handling cost them the opportunity of a bigger lead than 6-3 at the break.
In a wonderful gesture of camaraderie, the World Cup Boks formed a tunnel and applauded the two teams as they returned for the second half.
Flyhalf Strydom was replaced by Earl Rose nine minutes into the second half, just after Nell had been yellow-carded in a silly loss of control as the Cheetahs were on the attack.
World Cup prop Jannie du Plessis came on for the Cheetahs during the following stoppage as the Lions tried to speed up the game.
Thereafter De Waal, not finding touch, saw Lions fullback Louis Ludik, who had been in supreme form, launch an up and under that the Cheetahs couldn’t control. From the ensuing ruck the Lions swung it wide for Willie Wepener to score and put the Lions 8-6 in front.
Another high kick, this time from Rose, saw Free State wing Fredericks and replacement fullback Tewis de Bruyn spill the ball. Jano Vermaak scored for Rose to convert to put the Lions 15-6 ahead.
And when another touch judge call cost the Cheetahs a penalty turnover and the loss of Fredericks with a yellow card, Rose kicked a monster penalty to put his side well ahead at 18-6.
This brought renewed passion from the Cheetahs, and their forwards mauled centre Marius Joubert over for De Waal to convert and bring them right back into contention at 18-13.
Benjamin was then yellow-carded with seven minutes remaining. The Cheetahs exploited this and after a few rucks sent the ball to the blind side, where De Bruyn got the nod after a TMO decision. De Waal’s conversion from the touchline put the Cheetahs in front 20-18—Sapa
Cheetahs: Tries: Marius Joubert, Tewis de Bruyns. Conversions: Willem de Waal (2). Penalties: De Waal (2)
Lions: Tries: Willie Wepener, Jano Vermaak. Conversion: Earl Rose. Penalties: Louis Strydom, Rose.