Free State beat Western Province 42-21 in the main game at Craven Week in Welkom on Saturday.
After a slow opening 20 minutes Free State hit their straps, scoring five tries to two in a deserving victory that reversed last year’s 19-17 defeat to WP in the main game in East London.
WP made a dream start in the opening couple of minutes when, from a lost Free State lineout, the ball from the ensuing scrum was spread at pace down the backline and centre Tshotsho Mbovane threw the long skip ball to Craig Barry, the incumbent SA Schools fullback showing great pace as he crossed over for his fourth try of the tournament. Flyhalf Gavin Hauptfleisch missed the tight-angled conversion.
Free State, as was the case in their 30-20 win over KwaZulu-Natal, battled in lineouts and were forced to go for less numbers but still they could not hold onto possession. WP held a massive advantage in the possession and territory stakes in the first half (highlighted by the fact that Free State had had to make 32 tackles to eight against).
The WP forwards, too, were taking no backward step as they mixed it with their bigger rivals. And they took advantage of a lethargic start from Free State and extended their lead in the 16th minute with a penalty from the boot of Hauptfleisch to increase their lead to 8-0.
But Free State are a dangerous foe with ball in hand on the front foot, four times scoring points when entering enemy territory. First flyhalf Johan Goosen slotted a penalty in the 19th minute before a great individual try went the way of Paul Jordaan, the inside centre leaving three defenders stranded as he burst his way over the line. Goosen added the extra two points to give his side a 10-7 lead in the 24th minute.
It was a great six minutes of play from the Bloemfontein side, as they added two further tries scored by left wing Setho Tom. The first was from a long-range kick downfield that saw WP scrumhalf Gerhard Jordaan making a hash of things in his attempt to keep the ball from going into touch near his tryline only for the ball to end up in the goal area and Tom, following up, dotted down.
But Tom’s second score was somewhat controversial. It looked as if he had knocked on in catching a long pass but referee Marius van der Westhuizen, who was behind play, never saw it and Toms cantered over for the try, which was converted by Goosen to stretch the lead to 22-11 going into the break.
WP must have been somewhat shell-shocked as they had dominated almost the entire half bar that handful of minutes.
Free State began the second 35 minutes a lot better than the first, their set-piece plays more structured and the backs looking threatening when the ball was spread wide. They increased their lead through Goosen’s penalty goal in the 39th minute before WP countered with a penalty of their own through Hauptfleisch.
WP were being forced into mistakes under pressure and their structures that had been impressive in the opening two wins seemed to fall away as Free State piled on the pressure. And it was just a matter of time before they scored their fourth try, the two flankers Heinrich Douglas and Henco Greyling combining with the latter scoring the five-pointer. Goosen landed the conversion to give Free State a commanding 32-14 lead with 20 minutes remaining.
WP were visibly looking tired the longer the game went on, but there were moments of brilliance shown by outside centre Mbovane and Barry, both the pick of the backs on the day and strong contenders for a SA Schools cap.
Goosen made it six kicks out of eight as he landed another penalty before intercepting a WP line move for his first try of the tournament, which he converted to increase Free State’s lead to 42-14 with eight minutes to go.
WP substitute Andreas Dercksen impressed in his time on the field and was rewarded with a try near the death as he barged his way through the middle of a ruck, converted by Hauptfleisch.
But in the final analysis it was the Free Staters who ran out deserving winners on the day.
By Mike de Bruyn