Pace-setters stumble and fall

2009-10-19 00:00

THE Currie Cup pace-setters were overtaken in similar fashion in the semi-finals at the weekend and the title will go north with the Blue Bulls hosting the Free State Cheetahs in the final at Loftus on October 31.

The Sharks, top of the log, were beaten 23-21 in injury time when the fourth-placed Free State Cheetahs flyhalf Jacques-Louis Potgieter kicked the winning drop for a personal tally of 18 points.

Western Province, second on the log, were also pipped in injury time and at home as Bulls flyhalf Morne Steyn, who scored all his team’s points with seven kicks, landed a testing, angled penalty for a 21-19 win at Newlands.

While the Sharks were under the cosh in the first half, beaten for possession and struggling for field position, they did score two superb, long-range tries — by Stefan Terblanche and Ruan Pienaar — from turnovers. They led, flatteringly, 15-3 at the break and extended that to 18-3 minutes into the second half.

The mood of the game had shifted after the break when the Free Staters lost their hooker Richardt Strauss (closed eye) and without a suitable replacement on the bench. Number eight Ashley Johnson was press-ganged into the hooking role and suddenly the Sharks scrum was more solid, the Free State’s lineout work less secure and the champions had the territory and possession which had been denied them in the first half.

But it all went horribly wrong. A rare Cheetahs raid saw prop WP Nel crash over (18-13) and then an uncharacteristically wild Pienaar pass from a set piece should have been grabbed by Adi Jacobs but he hesitated and Potgieter snuffled the ball under his nose to run 50 metres to score (20-18).

Still, the Sharks were in front going into the last quarter after a Pienaar penalty (21-20) and they dominated territory in the closing 15 minutes. But they then lost the plot, desperately attempting to protect their lead instead of killing off the game.

Finally, with the game in injury time, the Cheetahs came away from their quarter, won a penalty at the breakdown from inconsistent referee Marius Jonker and kicked to the corner for an attacking lineout.

The Sharks stole the lineout but then promptly, and not for the first time, lost the ball at the breakdown under their posts and Potgieter kicked the Cheetahs into the final.

“That just about summed up our game,” said coach John Plumtree. “The Cheetahs were more intense at the breakdown and they pressured us. And, as we saw, pressure results in human error and we did not react well.”

The Sharks were also disrupted by injury with Odwa Ndungane, after just 26 minutes, and lock Johann Muller (57th minute) forced to leave the field while Free State, although the game was played in dry conditions, replaced wing Jongi Nokwe with the more secure Danwill Delmas before kick-off.

While Bok and Free State flank Heinrich Brussow had a massive influence on the contest, Potgieter was the match-winner. He battled with a fumbling display in the first half when he also missed three penalties but he enjoyed having the last laugh.

In Cape Town, WP wing Gio Aplon showed his blistering pace to score the only try as he chased the ball into Bulls’ in-goal area but the rest of the points were scored by Steyn (seven penalties) and Province fullback Joe Pietersen, who kicked four penalties and a conversion.

WP held a 19-18 lead, but with three minutes left of the match, Steyn clinched the game for the Bulls thanks to a superb 45-metre penalty kick.

“Goal-kickers are vital in semi-finals and finals and it’s those small margins that count,” said Blue Bulls coach Frans Ludeke after the match. “That was a special kick.”

Bulls captain Victor Matfield also lauded the efforts of his flyhalf after scoring all his side’s points in the match.

“Morne was wonderful again,” said Matfield.

Province captain Luke Watson did not blame replacement wing Sireli Naqelevuki for the high tackle which led to the last-gasp penalty.

“I’m not going to give credit for any individual or slate any individual. We’re a team and no individual is going out to deliberately sabotage us,” he told reporters.

Western Province coach Allister Coetzee said his team would have to take the defeat on the chin but praised his young charges for coming so close.

“It’s not the fairytale ending, but something is definitely happening at Western Province,” said Coetzee.

“To push the Blue Bulls so close shows we are heading in the right direction. We had to go for a Test-match approach, and I think the Blue Bulls will agree we knocked them back in contact.

“ I can think of at least two instances where we should have walked over the line.”

See also page 24

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