The Cheetahs scored a victory for themselves and South Africa when they beat the Crusaders 20-13 in Bloemfontein.
A late Leon MacDonald penalty gave the visitors a bonus point, but the result will help both the Sharks and Bulls as they strive for a top-four finish. The performance of the Crusaders suggests they may struggle to make the semi-final cut.
The Crusaders began ominously with scrumhalf Kahn Fotauli’i striking from close range. The visitors were running beautiful support lines and the smart offloads in contact confirmed their confidence. However, it was a combination of good Cheetahs defence and sloppy finishing that kept the Crusaders from breaking clear, and against all odds, the hosts led 10-7 at the break.
Jongi Nokwe failed to regather off his own kick but looked dangerous throughout. His persistence was rewarded when he ran a great line to score and hand his side the lead. Naas Olivier, who kicked well in his first outing for the Cheetahs, added the conversion to his earlier penalty.
Stephen Brett levelled the scores shortly after half-time, but the Cheetahs looked the hungrier of the two teams. They were more vigorous at the tackle point with Richie McCaw and his fellow loosies uncharacteristically limp.
Olivier nailed an important penalty as the game entered the final quarter, a period where the Cheetahs usually flounder. Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder also brought his big guns off the bench in an attempt to turn the tide, and everything pointed to a close finish.
The Crusaders continued to make unforced handling errors while the Cheetahs remained competitive at the breakdown. Heinrich Brussow had another solid game alongside Juan Smith, and it was due to their efforts that the Crusaders battled for momentum.
In the 71st minute, Brett had another chance to draw level but pushed his penalty attempt wide. It was a bad miss, as the Cheetahs struck with a great try through Hennie Daniller. After an industrious build up, Olivier, who looked and played like Quade Cooper on this occasion, flipped an inside pass to Daniller for the match-winning try.
MacDonald kicked a touchline penalty to give the Crusaders some consolation, but it wasn’t a showing worthy of the incumbent champs.
By Jon Cardinelli