Cape Town - The Golden Lions nearly pulled off one of the biggest comebacks in Currie Cup final history, but ultimately fell just short as the Free State Cheetahs ran out 31-28 winners in Bloemfontein on Saturday to claim the trophy.
As it happened: Free State Cheetahs v Golden Lions
The Cheetahs had the Lions under pressure early on with a series of lineouts and rolling mauls to move them up the field. While the visitors' defence held, it was shaky and the penalties conceded allowed the home side to march up the pitch.
Eventually, the pressure told in the 10th minute when the Cheetahs forwards found their rhythm and their maul was unstoppable with Joseph Dweba going over for the try. Ruan Pienaar's conversion attempt was good.
The Lions hit back almost straight away after a truly bizarre and enthralling passage of play. The men from Johannesburg started it with Tyrone Green breakaway, but he turned the ball over when he was tackled.
Duncan Matthews lost it in the recovery attempt but Ruben Schoeman then managed to steal it back again and the Lions counter-attacked into the acres of space created by the chaos and finished off with a try by Wandisile Simelane. Shaun Reynolds' conversion was good.
The home side then retook the lead through a Pienaar penalty and spent the next 25 minutes tearing the Lions' defence to ribbons.
The first try was all the visitors' own fault after losing possession due to a sloppy lineout throw. To make matters worse, they were very tardy recovering into defensive positions and the Cheetahs had very little trouble shifting it out wide for William Small-Smith to score in the corner. Pienaar slotted an absolute pearler of a conversion to make the score 17-7.
Moments later, Ross Cronje took an age to get his box-kick away and it was unsurprisingly charged down, although the fact that the successful charger was Ox Nche may have caught a few people off guard.
The big prop regathered the ball and almost went the distance himself, but was caught just short of the tryline. It was recycled and spread to Clayton Blommetjies who stepped beautifully off his left foot to cut back inside and get over the line. The conversion was successful again.
The half ended in almost the exact same fashion that it began, with Dweba hitting his target at the lineout, setting up a maul, gaining a few yards, winning a penalty, then doing it all again.
Dweba hit Steenkamp again with a lineout on the Lions five-metre line and he managed to drive straight through the middle to get over the line and score. Pienaar slotted the easy conversion and the score was a seemingly insurmountable 31-7 at half-time.
Ultimately, it did prove to be insurmountable - but not by much!
The score remained unchanged for almost the entirety of the second half as the home side looked to be cruising to a famous Currie Cup win.
To their credit, the Lions had been battling all half to find a way back into the match, but were repeatedly rebuffed by an imposing Cheetahs defence.
They ran out of steam a bit in the closing minutes however and the visitors were able to run them uncomfortably close in the end.
With just 10 minutes left on the clock, the Lions changed tactic away from attempting a maul from a lineout close to the Cheetahs' line, and slung it out wide and the exhausted defence couldn't stretch out in time, allowing Dillon Smith to go over. Reynolds converted to make it 31-14.
Sniffing their chance, the visitors then threw everything they had left at the Cheetahs and promptly marched back down the field through a smart break by Smit. After a tryline skirmish, James Venter managed to wriggle his way through for the try with Reynolds popping over another conversion.
The drama kicked up a notch again in what was truly becoming one of the great entertaining Currie Cup finals as both Smit and Abongile Nonkontwana were sent to the sin-bin for fighting.
The extra space on the field saw Lions send wave after wave of attack at the Cheetahs who clung on with every claw.
With time all but over, Venter again snuck through the forwards to pick up his second try of the game. Reynolds kicked the conversion, but there was no time for any more rugby and the Cheetahs were crowned 2019 Currie Cup champions.
Free State Cheetahs
Tries: Joseph Dweba, William Small-Smith, Clayton Blommetjies, Walt Steenkamp
Conversions: Ruan Pienaar (4)
Tries: Wandisile Simelane, Dillon Smit, James Venter (2)
Conversions: Shaun Reynolds (4)
Free State Cheetahs
15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 William Small-Smith, 13 Benhard Janse van Rensburg, 12 Dries Swanepoel, 11 Tian Meyer (captain ), 10 Tian Schoeman, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Junior Pokomela , 6 Gerhard Olivier, 5 Walt Steenkamp, 4 Sintu Manjesi, 3 Erich de Jager, 2 Joseph Dweba, 1 Ox Nche
Substitutes: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Charl Marais, 18 Reinach Venter, 19 JP du Preez, 20 Jasper Wiese, 21 Abongile Nonkontwana, 22 Louis Fouche, 22 Darren Adonis
15 Tyrone Green, 14 Madosh Tambwe, 13 Wandisile Simelane, 12 Duncan Matthews, 11 Stean Pienaar, 10 Shaun Reynolds, 9 Ross Cronje (captain), 8 Hacjivah Dayimani, 7 Cyle Brink, 6 Marnus Schoeman, 5 Marvin Orie, 3 Ruben Schoeman, 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Pieter Jansen, 1 Dylan Smith
Substitutes: 16 Jan-Henning Campher, 17 Nathan McBeth, 18 Johannes Jonker, 19 Wilhelm van der Sluys, 20 Len Massyn, 21 Dillon Smit, 22 Jan-Louis la Grange, 23 James Venter