GARETH DUNCAN watched the Cheetahs relinquish a 30-9 second-half lead in a 36-33 defeat to the Highlanders in Bloemfontein.
This match will be remembered as one of the most unlikely comeback wins in Super Rugby history. The Cheetahs have only themselves to blame after a shocking defensive performance during the final quarter. To concede 27 points during the closing stages of a game is embarrassing, especially after all the hard work done earlier on.
The Cheetahs held an all-round ascendancy against the ill-disciplined Otago team, and rightfully led 23-9 at the break and 30-9 shortly after the half-time restart. However, the Highlanders capitalised on the Cheetahs’ poor defensive showing midway through the second stanza as they ran in three converted tries to level the scores at 30-30.
After the teams traded penalties, Sias Ebersohn had the opportunity to convert a potential match-winning three-pointer from right in front of the posts, but he buckled under pressure and pulled the easy attempt. The Highlanders then edged the win in the 79th minute thanks to a Chris Noakes penalty. Astonishing.
During the week, Naka Drotske explained that he had a specific game plan to down the highflying Highlanders. The visitors came with strong reputation for their breakdown domination on attack and defence, and it was essential for the Cheetahs to nullify this threat to achieve victory.
And the home team did so impressively in the first half.
They committed enough numbers at the breakdown to halt the Highlanders’ strong counter-rucking, which saw them thrive on attack with the quick ball won at the tackle points. The Kiwis’ ill-discipline also cost them as they were issued two yellow cards in the 25th and 32nd minute respectively. Andrew Hore was the first player sent to the sin bin for a breakdown transgression, while James Haskell received the second for a blatant punch. The English flanker was lucky not to receive a red card as referee Marius Jonker was advised by his assistant to do so.
With this advantage, the Cheetahs built strong attacking momentum and crossed the chalk twice through Coenie Oosthuizen and Andries Ferreira. But it was Johan Goosen who was the main influence during the Cheetahs’ charge.
The 19-year-old flyhalf scored a haul of 18 points – kicking 13 in the first half (via three penalties and two conversions), before sprinting 65m down the touchline in the second stanza and beating two covering defenders to dive in at the corner. This gave the Cheetahs their 25-point buffer. In addition to his impressive spearheading of the backline and solid defensive display, he didn’t miss one goal attempt.
Unfortunately for the men from Bloemfontein, Goosen hurt his shoulder during the act of scoring and he was replaced by Ebersohn. And with Goosen’s early departure, came the Cheetahs’ downfall.
The hosts stifled on attack and their resolve crumbled on defence. This allowed the Highlanders to cut the deficit thanks to tries from halfback replacements Noakes and Jimmy Cowan, who completed a brace.
The Cheetahs still had the opportunity to close out the win, but they failed as Ebersohn missed his easiest goal attempt – handing the Highlanders their seventh win of the season.