Cheetahs throw it away
The Toyota Cheetahs threw away a 21-point lead as they allowed the Highlanders to stage a late comeback and steal the game 36-33 in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Substitute Chris Noakes kicked a long-range penalty a minute from the end to give his side a remarkable victory – as remarkable for the comeback as for the implosion in the home team after star flyhalf Johan Goosen left the field with a shoulder injury.
Goosen was pure class for 55 minutes, and scored a sensational counter-attack try, but did his shoulder as he went over the line.
It was a moment where most of us thought of the bigger impact it would have on national ambitions, but ironically it was also the moment that the Cheetahs fell apart.
Without Goosen on the field, the Cheetahs started slipping tackles, giving the Highlanders the confidence to score three tries within 15 minutes to draw level.
They were even more gutted when Goosen’s replacement, Sias Ebersohn, missed the simplest of penalties in the 76th minute, with the scores tied at 33-all, virtually handing the game to the opposition.
South African rugby has seen its fair share of comebacks and implosions, but what the Cheetahs dished out in the last 25 minutes of the game was one of the poorest ways of defending a lead in Super Rugby history.
It will have infuriated coach Naka Drotske and did no favours for the other South African teams looking for a spot in the playoffs, especially as the Chiefs also managed a comeback to win the game in the last minutes a few weeks back, in Bloemfontein as well.
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It also undid all the hard work and passion put out by the players in the first 55 minutes as they made the Highlanders not only look ordinary, but looked pretty impressive themselves in attacking one of the strongest sides in the competition.
And in the thick of it all was their young general Goosen, who controlled play throughout and was often the attacking link for the home side as they surged across the advantage line.
Now the Cheetahs will be hoping for some good news as Goosen goes for a more detailed diagnosis of his shoulder injury, and their concern will be shared by SA under-20 coach Dawie Theron and Bok mentor Heyneke Meyer as well.
From the opening whistle it was clear the Cheetahs wanted to use the width of the field to attack their opponents, and almost succeeded in the opening minutes through a good movement started by Hennie Daniller.
After swopping penalties with Mike Delaney early on, it was the home side that took control of the match as they found their way into the Highlanders' half with some storming runs, and Coenie Oosthuizen burrowed his way over from close range.
Delaney pulled three points back before Goosen added his own shot at goal to leave the scores at 13-6 before Highlanders hooker Andrew Hore was yellow-carded for repeated infringements at the breakdown.
The Highlanders went down to 13 after English international James Haskell caught Justin Downey with two punches, and an ensuing fight was also placed on white-card review for the citing commissioner to have a closer look at.
The Cheetahs messed up their first two attempts to turn their numbers advantage into points, but they eventually found the hole, as Andries Ferreira barged through for the score, and his first try in Super Rugby.
Delaney managed to get his side a few more points with a kick, but at 23-9 down at the halftime whistle, they looked almost out of the game.
Then in the second half, as the game grew more loose, the Cheetahs looked to have taken the game away from the visitors as an ominous-looking attack down the sideline produced a bobbling ball, which was snapped up by Goosen, who returned it with a scintillating run to score in the corner.
In the process he did his shoulder and had to be stretchered off the field, and little did we know that the Cheetahs' hopes seemed to have left the field with him.
Afterwards it was as if the Cheetahs were disjointed, while the Highlanders started throwing the ball around. A poor missed tackle by Robert Ebersohn saw Noakes drift in for the first try, and the appearance of All Black Jimmy Cowan on the field changed the game as he scored two tries within minutes of each other to draw the score level.
The first was a close-range pick-and-go, but the second, courtesy of another slipped tackle from the kickoff, was simply too much to believe as within the blink of an eye a 21-point lead had been cut to zero.
The Cheetahs fought hard to get the momentum back and seemed to have found the result they were looking for, as at 33-all they were awarded a penalty in front of the posts.
But Sias Ebersohn, to the horror of the home fans, missed possibly one of the easiest kicks in Super Rugby history.
The Highlanders surged back and won a penalty of their own, with Noakes putting the ball over for the victory and a sensational comeback win.
The Cheetahs though will be kicking themselves for letting the game get away, but after a performance like that, will find it hard to shake off criticism that they are a one-man team.
It was as tragic as it was inexcusable. Victory turned into defeat, and all when Goosen had left the field.
Toyota Cheetahs – Tries: Coenie Oosthuizen, Andries Ferreira, Johan Goosen. Conversions: Goosen (2), Sias Ebersohn . Penalties: Goosen (3), Ebersohn.
Highlanders – Tries: Chris Noakes, Jimmy Cowan (2). Conversions: Noakes (3). Penalties: Mike Delany (3), Noakes (2).