Western Province kept their play-off hopes alive with a 35-17 bonus-point victory over Free State on Saturday.
The returning Springboks were monumental in the result, and while it was by no means a complete showing, it may be the win needed to revitalise Province’s title hopes. With three games against the minnows (two at Newlands) followed by a final showdown with the Lions in Cape Town, they are well-placed to finish in the top four.
Synergy was always going to be a problem in Bloemfontein, as the Boks had minimal time to integrate themselves in the Province structures. Peter Grant also played his first game after a serious injury and Sireli Naqelevuki rejoined the team for the first time since the Super 14. These men made the difference on Saturday, but it was clear WP weren’t firing at full power.
It was a Province mistake that led to the first Free State try with Wilton Pietersen finishing strongly. But Grant kept the visitors in touch with two well-struck penalties. WP looked impressive when they weren’t forcing passes and launching attacking moves from their own 22, and when they had an opportunity, they often capitalised.
Some Ricky Januarie magic allowed Province to take the lead in the 19th minute. Cheetahs fullback Bevin Fortuin took an age to clear his line and Januarie charged down the kick successfully and dived on the loose ball. An accurate conversion by Grant took WP to a handy 13-7 advantage.
A yellow card to Schalk Burger in the 29th minute brought Free State back into the game. The solid WP defence was stretched one time to many and when Fabian Juries found some space, he flew in at the left-hand corner. It looked a telling blow right before half-time.
Province struck back immediately after Adriaan Fondse made a big turnover in midfield. Januarie spotted space on the blind side and fed Naqelevuki who beat several defenders before setting up Joe Pietersen for a simple run-in. At the break, Province had fought to earn an 18-17 lead.
The WP lineout struggled against a competitive Cheetahs unit, but a mix up at this set-piece saw an alert Schalk Brits scoop up the spoils and find Andries Bekker unmarked. This try was followed up by another Grant penalty which increased the cushion to nine points. By comparison, Meyer Bosman fluffed two penalty-attempts that could have made for a tighter contest.
Burger was typically aggressive at the breakdown, but it was this aggression that cost his side late in the game. A second yellow was brandished for a swinging arm and the subsequent red card meant Province would play out the final 10 minutes without their star flanker.
Free State were relentless in their attempt to cross the WP tryline, but their lack of innovation and poor handling ultimately let them down. Credit must go to the 14-man Province defence who never dropped their intensity, but the Absa Currie Cup champs will lament their own mistakes when they watch the video of this match on Monday.
One final speculative pass was intercepted by Jean de Villiers who sprinted 90 metres for the bonus point try. This extra point could prove crucial come the final round of competition.
Cheetahs – Tries: Wilton Pietersen, Fabian Juries. Conversions: Meyer Bosman (2). Penalty: Bosman.
WP – Tries: Ricky Januarie, Joe Pietersen, Andries Bekker, Jean de Villiers. Conversions: Peter Grant (3). Penalties: Grant (3).
By Jon Cardinelli