Free State Cheetas 31 (31) - 28 (7) Golden Lions
The Free State Cheetahs recovered from the ignominy of having to play for their Currie Cup Premier Division status last year to narrowly win their sixth domestic title by pipping a callow but fast-finishing Golden Lions side last night.
The result marks a particularly successful Pro14 preseason for the Cheetahs and a winning farewell gift for coach Franco Smith, who was in charge of his last game before he jets off to join Italy after the Rugby World Cup.
Former Springbok scrum half Ruan Pienaar, like he did in the semifinal against the Sharks last weekend, again had his fingerprints all over a game in which the hosts scored all of their points in the first half.
The regal Pienaar was commanding to the point where one forgot who the Cheetahs’ fly half was on the day, and was miles ahead of anyone else on the pitch with his vision, yanking the chains in open play and nailing all five of his kicks at goal for a personal tally of 11 points.
With both teams carrying a reputation of being relentless runners with ball in hand going into the final, an open, fast and high-octane game – which was often punctuated by brief bouts of fisticuffs – was always going to be on the cards.
This was particularly the case in the first 10 minutes, where the sides took turns trying to splinter the other’s defensive walls.
But in a game like that, turnovers are always going to be kingmakers. Unfortunately for the visiting kings of the concrete jungle, they blinked first in this regard and they were punished heavily for this by the hosts.
Too often in the remaining half an hour of the first half, Ivan van Rooyen’s men lost the ball in contact or had it ripped away, got their wires crossed in their line-outs and – thanks in no small part to the pressure being applied by the Cheetahs – frequently infringed right in front of their try line.
The Cheetahs’ first-half tries came from an offside penalty (by Joseph Dweba from a rolling maul); a second botched line-out on the halfway line (winger William Small-Smith); an Ox Nché charge-down (fullback Clayton Blommetjies); and another offside penalty (lock Walt Steenkamp).
The visitors had initially looked well up for the fight, having almost immediately responded with a turnover try of their own from around their 22m line, with the battling Tyrone Green and Duncan Matthews staging the long-distance raid before centre Wandisile Simelane ghosted through to score.
Yet, for all that spirit, the Lions – perhaps thanks largely to the youthfulness of their team – found very little purchase from a fast-advancing Cheetahs defence and, consequently, tried a little too much by themselves and isolated themselves into a vicious cycle of turnover ball.
As a result, the Cheetahs’ work was already done by half-time, despite the Lions’ best efforts to get back into the game. To that end, a lot of other players from the host team made life uncomfortable for the visitors.
In the front row, the Cheetahs may have come off second best more times than they would have liked, but Nché was his usual bustling self, with Dweba carrying like an enraged rhino. Lock Sintu Manjezi continued with his unseen brand of hard work until referee Marius van der Westhuizen saw enough to sin-bin him with 15 minutes left in the game.