Bloemfontein - The Free State XV were made to work hard before clinching a 23-14 (half-time 10-11) win over the Leopards in their Currie Cup qualifier in Bloemfontein on Friday.
The defeat signalled the end of the Leopards’ hopes of playing in the Currie Cup Premier Division while the Free State, who outscored the Leopards two tries to one, in an entertaining if somewhat scrappy affair at times, moved to fifth on the log.
The Leopards opened the scoring in the seventh minute courtesy of a penalty from fullback Rhyno Smith.
But the hosts struck back just two minutes later when flank Refuoe Rampeta was mauled over for a converted try.
The Leopards looked to attack and it paid off when right wing Jaco Hayward went over in the corner after a sweeping backline move as the visitors moved to an 8-7 lead after 12 minutes.
Rhyno Smith extended the lead with a long-range penalty but the Free State forwards were taking almost complete control in the scrums as the hosts dominated possession and territory in the second quarter of the match.
Despite their dominance the Free State XV failed to narrow the deficit until, on the stroke of half-time flyhalf Neil Marais slotted a penalty as the Leopards went to the break holding a narrow 11-10 lead.
Both teams showed plenty of attacking intent at the start of the second stanza but they were both let down by handling errors and unforced errors at crucial stages.
But the hosts finally regained the lead, 14 minutes into the second half, when Marais succeeded with his second penalty of the evening.
But the Free State finally managed to hold onto the ball long enough for hooker Jacques du Toit to slip a pass to lock Reniel Hugo who went over for a converted try in the 59th minute.
The Leopards were not prepared to give up and they narrowed the gap to six points with 10 minutes left in the game thanks to Rhyno Smith’s third penalty.
But with less than two minutes left to play the Free State XV made sure of the win as scrumhalf JP Smith kicked a close-range penalty.
Free State XV
Tries: Refuoe Rampeta, Reniel Hugo
Conversions: Neil Marais (2)
Penalties: Marais (2), JP Smith
Try: Jaco Hayward
Penalties: Rhyno Smith (3)