The Free State Cheetahs pummeled the Blue Bulls 44-18 in an enthralling encounter in Bloemfontein.
Some would suggest the scoreline is not reflective of the match, with the Bulls putting up a huge fight for the first 50 minutes. But the Cheetahs changed gears when it mattered most, in the process making an emphatic statement about their title ambitions.
This match mimicked the memorable drawn final just over a year ago, with the Cheetahs dominating possession and territory and indeed looking the bigger attacking threat for the majority of the match. But after they scored two early tries one sensed that the result would be very different.
The Bulls however have built a reputation for being a team with bags of character and that was evident in the manner in which they defended. That defence, coupled with the boot of Derick Hougaard meant they were still in touch (10-6) at the break despite the Cheetahs having bossed the encounter up to that point.
The hosts were dominant in the set phases and at the breakdown, with Heinrich Brussouw edging the ground level battle against his former Grey College teammate Deon Stegmann. Brussouw’s work at ruck time meant Hougaard often received scrappy, slow ball, limiting his attacking options.
The sublime Falie Oelschig cranked up the heat on the Bulls pivot, forcing him into a series of kicks that failed to get the desired distance. This allowed the Cheetahs to mount waves of attack from lineouts. And that’s precisely how they opened their account.
The move came straight off the training ground, with Meyer Bosman running a superb angle at first receiver to pierce the defensive line and offload to his midfield partner Marius Joubert, who cruised over the whitewash.
Bosman displayed some superb touches and was the pillar around which the Cheetahs’ attacking structure revolved. They however lost a clinical edge when he was injured, but not before he grabbed a five pointer for himself.
A midfield wrap and skip pass saw Eddie Fredericks set the ruck up on the wing. Again Bosman ran a fantastic line from the second phase, but this time he’d claim the glory, corkscrewing out of a tackle to dot down.
His replacement, and that of the try-hungry Philip Burger, was a huge blow for the Cheetahs, who seemed to lose some structure initially. It would however be an injustice not to acknowledge some solid defence by the Bulls in thwarting their rampant opponents.
Pote Human’s charges tightened their game up, shunning an expansive approach for a percentage forward-orientated one that paid dividends. The momentum swung in their favour as they enjoyed their best period of the half and Hougaard’s second drop goal of the match brought his side to within four, before the half-time siren sounded.
The impetus was well and truly with the visitors and they carried that into the third quarter. They camped in the Cheetahs’ 22m, at one stage setting up 17 phases. The Cheetahs defended gallantly for 10 minutes before Wayne Julies unlocked their defence following an impressive backline move.
But the Cheetahs have shown themselves to be a team who pose a sustained threat, and that ultimately proved the difference between the sides. They absorbed the pressure and took their scoring opportunities, with Willem de Waal sealing the Bulls’ fate.
The pivot opened up a five point lead through two penalties, before capping a fine performance with the try that knocked the wind out of the Bulls’ sails.
The Pretoria men seemed to have shot their bolt with the intense start to the half, and were out on their feet thereafter. The Cheetahs were ruthless, and swung the ball wide to their hard running outside backs at every given opportunity. Eddie Fredericks was the man who profited, bagging a brace of tries to douse any hope of a dramatic comeback.
John Mametsa scored a good individual try as a consolation, before Gavin Passens decked the punch drunk Bulls after the siren had sounded.
The Cheetahs are out of sight on the log and in a different class on the field. They’ve set the bar unbelievably high and have left their competiton wondering how the hell they are going beat this lot.
By Ryan Vrede
Cheetahs - Try: Marius Joubert, Meyer Bosman, Willem De Waal, Eddie Fredericks (2), Gavin Passens. Conversion: De Waal (4) Penalty: Willem De Waal (2)
Bulls - Try: Wayne Julies, John Mametsa. Conversion: Derick Hougaard. Penalty: Hougaard, Drop goal: Hougaard