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Rugby | Pro14

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Cheetahs clinch last gasp victory

A last minute angled penalty kick from Neil Marais grabbed the Cheetahs a crucial 26-25 win over Connacht in a closely contested GuinnessPRO14 fixture in Bloemfontein on Saturday night.

It looked all over for the Cheetahs as they set a scrum deep in their own half with just over two minutes remaining and the Irish team leading 25-23. However a strong scrumming effort saw referee Stuart Berry signal a Cheetahs penalty and then a stunning long kick from Clayton Blommetjies set up a Cheetahs lineout just metres from the Connacht line.

The visitors transgressed in the lineout and then again as the Cheetahs took a quick tap and by the time the players drew breath they realised they had a chance to win it if they kicked for the posts. It wasn’t the easiest kick but Marais had enjoyed a good night with the boot and he duly slotted the winner.

There was just enough time to restart but Connacht were unable to win back possession from the kick-off and a very relieved Cheetahs skipper Francois Venter kicked the ball into touch to end the game.

The reason Venter would have been relieved was because this was a crucial game for the Cheetahs in terms of their chances of making the play-offs. The way it works in the PRO14, the top team in each conference advances directly to the semifinal, while the next two teams play off against each other to see who goes through.

The Cheetahs are currently third, and before this game they were just five points ahead of the Cardiff Blues, with a tough tour to Wales to come. After some close defeats on the road, and with the reality that they have only won once overseas this season, it was therefore almost a match of play-off proportions for the Cheetahs.

It was for Connacht too, for with five games to go in the league phase they could still have caught the Cheetahs if they had won. It is nearly impossible to do so now, and the disappointment was etched on the visiting players’ features afterwards.

It didn’t look like being a close game initially, with Uzair Cassiem capitalising on some loose play from Connacht near their own line and going over untouched for a try that Marais converted to give his team a 7-0 lead after just four minutes. The flyhalf added a penalty five minutes later and the Cheetahs had a comfortable 10-0 lead.

But the Connacht backs were slick and were dangerous every time they were in possession. Matt Healy was their star on the wing, crossing for two tries, the first coming in the 14th minute off a great set-phase move that sucked in the defenders before the speedy Healey was released out wide.

The Cheetahs did most of the pressurising in the first half hour and that netted them penalties, with Marais taking them to 13-7 before a second Healy try in the 20th minute, this time the product of a simple and uncomplicated backline attack that simply sucked in the defenders and left space out wide, made it a one point game (13-12).

Marais was then on the board again to make it 16-12 but a long range kick from Jack Carty made it 16-15 and the Cheetahs looked a nervous team as they went into halftime.

Connacht continued to gain momentum after the break and after Carty gave his team the lead for the first time with a penalty (18-16), there was a lengthy period where the visitors were the dominant team. And that dominance was made to tell when Carty shifted his way past a Cheetahs tight forward to create the break that set up centre Eoin Griffin off an inside ball.

That made it 25-16 with 23 minutes to go and suddenly the Irish side looked well in control of the game. As their captain John Muldoon said afterwards, however, perhaps they were guilty of trying to sit on their lead, something opposing South African players would tell you is always fatal against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

The Cheetahs broke back into the game through a great try from replacement winger Sibhale Maxwane, who was set up courtesy of a break from Nico Lee and then a good inside pass from Craig Barry. Marais’ conversion made it a two point game (25-23) with 20 minutes to go. It was almost as if both teams were too nervous to seize the initiative after that, with both of them having opportunities that were wasted through poor finishing.

The Cheetahs looked like they may have blown it when they had a lineout ball go against the throw near the Connacht line with six minutes to go, thus enabling Connacht to relieve the pressure, but the next time they got an opportunity in a similar position they were awarded the penalty that allowed them to clinch victory from the jaws of defeat.


Cheetahs -26 – Tries: Uzair Cassiem and Sibhalee Maxwane; Conversions: Neil Marais 2; Penalties: Marais 4.

Connacht 25 – Tries: Matt Healy 2 and Eoin Griffin; Conversions: Jack Carty 2; Penalties: Jack Carty 2.


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