Having endured a hammering at the hands of Tafel Lager Griquas in their opening encounter following a bye in round one and seen their fixture against the Vodacom Bulls scrapped due to COVID-19 protocols, the Free Staters were desperate to open their account and had it all to do as they were without 16 players as well as head coach Hawies Fourie.
Tafel Lager Griquas’ stunning 30-28 upset victory over DHL Western Province on Wednesday opened the door for the Lowvelders to leapfrog the Capetonians at the top of the table, but the Toyota Cheetahs - with defence guru Charl Strydom filling in as head coach for the isolating Fourie - slammed it shut as two second-half tries paved the way for a thrilling victory.
Both teams came out with intensity in what would turn out to be a frustrating first half, which ended tryless. Both predators lacked their usual killer instinct, with fundamental errors seeing numerous try-scoring opportunities go begging. Indiscipline also hurt both teams in a catfight that produced three yellow cards.
The first came in the 11th minute. The New Nation Pumas had made massive inroads with a driving maul, from where flank Francois Kleinhans broke free and nearly willed his way over the tryline. His opposite number, Jeandré Rudolph, made the try-saving tackle but was then guilty of not rolling away and was given his marching orders.
The visitors opted to take the points with flyhalf Eddie Fouché, who’d made a try-saving tackle of his own earlier on, popping over the penalty goal from right in front of the posts. The hosts had a chance to hit right back as Clayton Blommetjies, playing in his 50th Carling Currie Cup match, sliced through and threw a long pass to an unmarked Cohen Jasper only for the winger to knock on.
They squandered another golden opportunity in the red zone, this time, almost conceded a try on the other end with the New Nation Pumas launching a lethal counter-attack. Fortunately for the Free Staters, the danger was snuffed out at the final minute by desperate scrambling defence from Blommetjies, who went on to be named Champion of the Match.
The Toyota Cheetahs had bossed the breakdown and when lock Rynier Bernardo worked his second jackal penalty in the 27th minute, captain Ruan Pienaar looked to open his team’s account but pulled his first kick at goal wide. Fouché followed suit, albeit from a far more challenging angle and distance after tighthead Ig Prinsloo had won a scrum penalty on the half-hour mark.
With two minutes left in the half, Pienaar finally put the Toyota Cheetahs on the board after hooker Simon Westraadt, who was industrious as ever, was penalised at the breakdown. However, a lapse in concentration by Aidon Davis led to obstruction and handed the men from the Northern Cape a 6-3 lead at the break courtesy of Fouché’s boot.
The second stanza got off to a rocky start for the New Nation Pumas as a leading shoulder by Willie Engelbrecht on Jean Droste saw the eighthman sin-binned in the 44th minute. At first, it had looked like an elbow, with referee Cwengile Jadezweni considering issuing a red card, but upon consultation with TMO Ben Crouse, the sanction was scaled down to yellow.
Nevertheless, the pressure was now transferred onto Jimmy Stonehouse’s charges, who survived the first scare thanks to an excellent cover tackle by Tapiwa Mafura, who’d come all the way from his wing to the other to smash Duncan Saal into touch.
Moments later, playmaker extraordinaire Blommetjies provided the necessary spark with a counter-attacking run and offload that put Brandon Thomson into space. The flyhalf, one of a number of Carling Currie Cup debutants in the Toyota Cheetahs’ ranks, linked up with halfback partner Pienaar, with the 38-year-old showing good pace to dot down despite Devon Williams’ best efforts. The Springbok stalwart converted his own try as the hosts hit the front for the first time in the 56th minute.
Fouché pulled three points back before Rudolph made up for his first-half yellow card with a chicken-wing offload to Saal, who shifted the ball to a surging Lesley Botha to round off. Pienaar’s conversion stretched the lead to 17-9. Then came another twist in the tale, a double blow for the hosts as replacement prop Conraad van Vuuren conceded a penalty try and was yellow-carded for illegally sacking the maul, which made it a one-point game at 17-16 with 14 minutes remaining.
From there, a combination of dogged defence by the home team and overzealousness by the New Nation Pumas - which saw them make a string of elementary mistakes - allowed the Toyota Cheetahs to hang on by the skin of their teeth.
Toyota Cheetahs 17 (3) – Tries: Ruan Pienaar, Lesley Botha. Conversions: Pienaar (2). Penalty goal: Pienaar.
New Nation Pumas 16 (6) – Try: Penalty try. Penalty goals: Eddie Fouché (3).