Cheetahs butcher Bloem win
Johan Goosen (Gallo Images)
Bloemfontein - The Highlanders wiped out a 21-point deficit during the second half to pip the Cheetahs 36-33 on Saturday in a Super Rugby thriller in Bloemfontein.
The first time the New Zealand visitors led was in the final minute when replacement flyhalf Chris Noakes kicked his second penalty at a silent Free State Stadium.
Highlanders won possession from the resultant kick-off, kept the ball among the forwards until the full-time hooter sounded, and replacement scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan belted the ball into the main stand.
As if facing an at-times rampant South African team was not enough, the men from Dunedin were two short for several first-half minutes after hooker Andrew Hore and England flank James Haskell got yellow cards.
Cheetahs replacement flyhalf Sias Ebersohn bowed his head and tried to hold back tears after the final whistle as he fluffed a simple penalty attempt just before Noakes snatched victory.
Ebersohn came off the bench on the hour mark when pivot Johan Goosen, who had contributed 18 points, was forced off the field after hurting his shoulder while scoring the Cheetahs' third try that was converted for a 30-9 advantage.
Highlanders hit back with three converted tries to draw level only to fall behind again before nerve-less Noakes slotted penalties on 72 and 80 minutes to keep his team second in the New Zealand Conference and fifth overall.
"That was an unbelievable match," said Highlanders loosehead and skipper Jamie MacKintosh. "We were bloody awful and indisciplined until we discovered some momentum during the second half.
"I really feel for the Cheetahs, who are a great attacking side, but we felt their defence was a bit narrow so once we started getting our hands on the ball the plan was to go wide and get around them."
Cheetahs hooker and captain Adriaan Strauss found it hard to accept that his team had let a big lead slip and remain 11th on the southern hemisphere provincial championship standings, six points off the last playoff spot.
"I am so disappointed as we had chances to finish the game off when well ahead. We just were not smart enough as the Highlanders started finding space and running at us," he admitted.
Cowan scored two tries and Noakes one for Highlanders, all of which Noakes converted and he added two penalties to the three kicked by flyhalf Mike Delany during the opening half which ended with Cheetahs 23-9 ahead.
Leading Super Rugby points scorer Goosen raised his season total to 145 with a try, two conversions and three penalties while Ebersohn contributed one conversion and one penalty from five attempts at goal.
Loosehead prop Coenie Oosthuizen and debutant lock Andries Ferreira scored first-half tries for the home team, whose only consolation was a bonus point for losing narrowly.
The Cheetahs host struggling Australian outfit the Western Force next Saturday while the Highlanders travel to Durban for a showdown with the Sharks the same day.
15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Cameron Jacobs, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Willie le Roux, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Tewis de Bruyn, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Justin Downey, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 WP Nel, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Coenie Oosthuizen
Substitutes: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 George Earle, 19 Ashley Johnson, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Philip Snyman
15. Ben Smith, 14. Buxton Popoalii, 13. Tamati Ellison, 12. Shaun Treeby, 11. Hosea Gear, 10. Mike Delany, 9. Aaron Smith, 8. Nasi Manu, 7. James Haskell, 6. Adam Thomson, 5. Jarrad Hoeata, 4. Josh Bekhuis, 3. Chris King, 2. Andrew Hore, 1. Jamie MacKintosh (captain)
Substitutes: 16. Jason Rutledge, 17. Ma'afu Fia, 18. Culum Retallick, 19. Doug Tietjens, 20. Jimmy Cowan, 21. Chris Noakes, 22. Siale Piutau