The Toyota Free State Cheetahs just managed to maintain their unbeaten record as they held off the Xerox Golden Lions 37-29 (halftime 15-26) in a nail-biting Currie Cup Premier Division match at the Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein on Thursday.
The Cheetahs overturned an 11-point halftime deficit as they outscored their opponents by five tries to two to record their sixth consecutive win of the season and stretch their lead at the top of the table to nine points while the Golden Lions remain in fifth place on the log and will have their work cut out to make the semifinals.
The home team turned in a superb second-half performance as they ran in three tries in the second half while the Lions, who had dominated the first half, could only manage three points courtesy of penalty.
The Lions made all the early running and they opened up a 9-0 lead after 12 minutes thanks to three penalties from flyhalf Jaco van der Walt, the first of which was a long-range effort from the half-way line.
But Van der Walt turned from hero to villain in the 16th minute when he was yellow-carded for twice being offside with the Cheetahs hard on attack.
Cheetahs’ pivot Neil Marais kicked the resulting penalty kick but the hosts were also reduced to 14 men just minutes later when fullback Clayton Blommetjies was yellow-carded for side entry at a ruck.
The Lions extended their lead courtesy of a 23rd-minute penalty from fullback Andries Coetzee.
But the Cheetahs scored the first try of the match as they took advantage of an attacking lineout with the impressive left wing Raymond Rhule handing off Coetzee to dot down for an unconverted try in the 26th minute.
However, the Lions were dictating play and they nabbed their first try when scrumhalf Ross Cronje took a quick-tap penalty five metres from the Cheetahs’ tryline before feeding inside centre Rohan Janse van Rensburg who crashed over next to the posts for a converted score.
Janse van Rensburg was then instrumental in his team’s next try and he broke through the Cheetahs’ defence before feeding hooker Robbie Coetzee as the Lions scored their second try in three minutes to stretch their lead to 26-8 after 36 minutes.
But the Cheetahs struck back before the end of the half when Marais put through a delicate grubber with lock Reniel Hugo on hand to collect the ball to score as the Lions reached the break holding a 26-15 lead.
The Cheetahs began the second half in fine style and their attacking approach resulted in a yellow card for Fabian Booysen after a cynical foul from the No 8 in the 49th minute.
The hosts soon took advantage when scrumhalf Shaun Venter sniped over for an unconverted try after a powerful Cheetahs’ scrum to cut the deficit to six points.
The home team took the lead in the 54th minute after some wonderful interplay between backs and forwards saw right wing Ryno Benjamin go over for a converted try.
Marais then struck a long-range penalty to extend the lead to four points before Van der Walt struck a penalty of his own in the 66th minute to make it a one-point game.
But the Cheetahs made sure of the win when replacement scrumhalf Tian Meyer went over for a try in the 79th minute.
Toyota Free State Cheetahs – Tries: Raymond Rhule, Reniel Hugo, Shaun Venter, Ryno Benjamin, Tian Meyer; Conversions: Neil Marais (3); Penalties: Marais (2).
Xerox Golden Lions – Tries: Rohan Janse van Rensburg, Robbie Coetzee; Conversions: Jaco van der Walt (2); Penalties: Van der Walt (4), Andries Coetzee.