The Chiefs overturned a 24-point deficit to clinch a 41-27 bonus-point win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Again, the Cheetahs will lament their inconsistent defence and inability to produce a complete 80-minute performance as they squandered a golden opportunity to secure a first win over the Chiefs since 1997.
As it turned out, the Chiefs were the better team for the final hour of play, and although it required late tries to replacement Shaun Stevenson and Hika Elliot to seal the result, it ultimately had the sense of an inevitable outcome.
The win for the Chiefs enabled them to head back to New Zealand with at least something to show for their efforts in South Africa, while the Cheetahs were condemned to a fifth loss of the season.
The Cheetahs came into this clash with a cloud of uncertainty surrounding their future in Super Rugby, with the Free State franchise expected to be one of the two South African teams that will be cut from 2018.
In this context, the Cheetahs appeared to start with a clear point to prove as they kicked off proceedings with ferocious intensity on attack, and against all expectations, the home side raced into a 24-0 lead in the opening quarter.
First Raymond Rhule showed impressive special awareness to power his way over the tryline, before hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld barrelled over from the back of a driving maul. Yet, even at 17-0 up, the Cheetahs weren’t done yet as captain Francois Venter then went over to score, which left the visiting Chiefs well and truly stunned.
Having said that, the Chiefs slowly worked their way back into the contest, with winger Toni Pulu finishing well in the corner to finally get the Kiwi team on the scoreboard. Then, with the final play of the half, the Chiefs bravely opted to kick a penalty to the corner, which ultimately led to Pulu dotting down for his second try after a well-worked lineout move.
Almost in the blink of an eye, the Cheetahs’ lead had been cut to 10 points, and it was game on once again. From there, it was always going to be interesting to see whether the Chiefs could maintain their characteristic attacking intensity until 80 minutes, or whether the altitude factor would take its toll.
There was an opening for the hosts early in the second half when Chiefs prop Kane Hames was shown a yellow card for a cynical offence, and soon after Niel Marais slotted his second penalty to put the Cheetahs 27-14 ahead.
From there, though, the Chiefs came roaring back as Aaron Cruden first slotted a penalty, before scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow and wing James Lowe finished off two well-worked team tries that suddenly sent the visitors into a 29-27 lead.
As the match wound to a conclusion, Fred Zeilinga missed a penalty that could have put the Cheetahs ahead, but from there Stevenson and Elliot scored opportunistic tries to complete an incredible comeback.
Cheetahs – Tries: Raymond Rhule, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Francois Venter. Conversions: Niel Marais. Penalties: Marais (2).
Chiefs – Tries: Toni Pulu (2), Tawera Kerr-Barlow, James Lowe, Shaun Stevenson, Hika Elliot. Conversions: Aaron Cruden (3). Penalty: Cruden.
Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 Nico Lee, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Carl Wegner, 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Ox Nche
Replacements: 16 Elandré Huggett, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Francois Uys, 20 Niell Jordaan, 21 Junior Pokomela / Luther Obi, 22 Tian Meyer, 23 Fred Zeilinga
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Sam McNicol, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Taleni Seu, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Sosefo Kautai, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Alex Nankivell, 23 Shaun Stevenson
Date: Saturday, April 15
Venue: Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein
Referee: Jaco van Heerden
Assistant Referees: Marius van der Westhuizen, Lourens van der Merwe
TMO: Johan Greeff