A sea of orange engulfed Bloemfontein both on and off the field as the Free State Cheetahs made sure of hosting their first Currie Cup final since 2007 with an unexpectedly one-sided 55-17 win over the Golden Lions in their semifinal on Saturday.
Although the Cheetahs went in as favourites by virtue of topping the log and being the hosts, most pundits would have anticipated a close game. It was anything but, with the only initial Lions success being a penalty at the first scrum, after which it was virtually all the Cheetahs who appear to have benefited from the advantage the Lions enjoyed last season – that being continuity.
The Cheetahs moved quite seamlessly from Super Rugby into the domestic competition in comparison to the Lions, who lost several players to the Springboks during the league phase of the season and then had other stalwarts unavailable for the play-offs due to Japanese club commitments.
Last season the Lions had the advantage of continuity, and it was from there that their coach Johan Ackermann was able to build the platform for the relative Super Rugby success that followed on from their domination of the Currie Cup.
Time will tell whether Cheetahs coach Franco Smith will see a similar story unfold for him when he gets to Super Rugby as it did for the Lions this year, but certainly on the evidence of this game, the Cheetahs have built a lot of confidence since the end of the southern hemisphere competition in July.
They will start as strong favourites to win the golden trophy in the decider next Saturday, regardless of which of the Blue Bulls or Western Province win through to make the trip to Bloemfontein. This win was their 10th in succession, and as was the case with the Lions 12 months ago, they have built their successful run around an attacking, ball in hand playing style that makes nonsense of any theory that South Africans cannot play a quick paced possession orientated game.
It helps of course if you have pace out wide, and the Cheetahs do have that in the form of Sergeal Petersen and Raymond Rhule, while Clayton Blommetjies is of course a slippery customer who proves a constant thorn to opposition defensive systems.
A fast paced game might not have been anticipated when it was dry and hot, with the temperature registered at 32 degrees, shortly before kick-off. However dark clouds positioned themselves over the stadium as the game started and soon players and spectators were being pelted by hailstones in addition to rain.
It didn’t last, but it probably served to cool everything down, though not for the Lions, who had enough opportunities to attack but couldn’t make the same impression on the Cheetahs defensive system that the home team managed to do when they had opportunities to attack.
Apart from that early scrum penalty that went against them, it was all the Cheetahs in the first eight minutes, and bearded flyhalf Neil Marais converted the early dominance in possession and field position into six points through two penalties. The Lions were under pressure and looked rattled, so it wasn’t surprising that discipline let them down. By the time the game reached the 24-minute mark, they had already conceded five penalties.
The Cheetahs were comfortably able to create space out wide, and it wasn’t a surprise when a great handling movement made the difference, with impressive flanker Uzair Cassiem once again showing off his astounding skills by producing the pop pass that sent the pacy Petersen in at the right corner after a quarter of an hour. It was the first try in a Petersen hat-trick. Marais had his kicking boots laced on and kicked the difficult conversion from the touchline to make it 13-0.
The Cheetahs were dominating the collision points, something that is key to any team that wants to beat the Lions – just ask the Hurricanes coaching staff – and by doing so they piled on the pressure that netted two further kickable penalties that Marais slotted to take the Cheetahs to 19-0 after 25 minutes, by which time the Lions were one man down after Cyle Brink was yellow-carded.
Petersen in the meantime had come close to scoring a second try as he knocked the ball on after having done most of the work already in chasing a ball, but he made sure in the 34th minute as lock Reniel Hugo produced a startling downfield kick that brushed a Lions hand to put the Cheetahs wing onside. Petersen had to do a bit of dribbling near the Lions line but comfortably dotted it down to complete the first-half scoring, with the Cheetahs taking a commanding 26—0 lead to the break.
The Lions’ best chance in the half came on the stroke of halftime, with a sustained multi-phase build-up that was given momentum by a penalty near the Cheetahs line only coming short when flyhalf Jaco van der Walt lost his composure and knocked the ball on with the line just two metres away.
Had the Lions scored then it might still have been a close game as the Lions would have had their confidence boosted for a second-half fightback, but instead yet another Lions defensive error let them down immediately after the break, and with it went any chance of them winning the game. It was that man Petersen who started it as he jinked past three defenders after the Cheetahs had fielded the kick-off before sending out a pass to No 8 Neill Jordaan.
The loose-forward was hemmed in on the touchline, or at least that looked to be the case, but he scythed past some pretty inept Lions defence to surge in at the corner flag. Marais kicked another difficult conversion, and although the Lions did score a good try to wing Sylvian Mahuza in the 49th minute, another Marais penalty made it 36-3 to keep the home team motoring along.
The Lions forced enough pressure in the second half to win a succession of penalties and two yellow cards, plus another try to Mahuza, but it was a consolation score as the deficit was always going to be too much against a Cheetahs team that has got its defence together now, and then some.
Indeed, just when it looked as though the Lions might at least end their reign as Currie Cup champions by finishing the game strongly, the Cheetahs once again started to get their sublime combination of forward thrust and backline finesse to work again and it produced two excellent tries to replacement Ryno Benjamin and Blommetjies that took the Cheetahs to the half century mark.
Petersen scored his hat-trick score with the match nearly over, and although the Lions did score the final points of the match through a try to replacement forward Ruan Lerm on the hooter, it wasn’t enough to avert the Lions’ embarrassment and the Cheetahs’ joy.
Given how physical they’ve become on defence and how good they’ve become at converting even half chances into points, it’s hard to see them being denied next Saturday, when the orange tide should hit Bloemfontein again in preparation for a night of riotous celebration.
Free State Cheetahs 55 – Tries: Sergeal Petersen 3, Neill Jordaan, Ryno Benjamin, Clayton Blommetjies; Conversions: Neil Marais 3 and Fred Zeilinga 2; Penalties: Neil Marais 5.
Golden Lions 17 – Tries: Sylvian Mahuza 2 and Ruan Lerm; Conversion: Andries Coetzee.