The Chiefs fought back from a 24-point deficit against the Cheetahs to claim a bonus-point win at Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, in a comeback of the ages.
This was a game, not so much of two halves, but four quarters. The Cheetahs dominated the first, then the visitors, the last three as they outscored their hosts 41 points to three in the final hour of the match.
The Cheetahs raced to a 24-nil lead after 22 minutes after tires from Raymond Rhule, hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld and skipper Francois Venter.
Neil Marais replaced Fred Zeilinga for the game and he was immaculate from the kicking tee with four from four as the hosts ran rampant.
But the Chiefs pulled back to tries from Toni Pulu in the final 11 minutes of the first half and the home support shuddered, as their team’s dominance on the scoreboard was erased in an instant.
The Cheetahs being the Cheetahs, any lead, no matter how large, is not easily defended and especially, against a Kiwi team famed for their obdurance.
Coach Franco Smith called for cool heads at the break and for his team to keep the ball. This, they did not do, kicking away to the most potent counter-attacking team in the competition, they paid the price.
The New Zealanders clawed their way back from the deficit, with tries from Tawera Kerr-Barlow and James Lowe, to take a two-point 29-27 lead with 20 minutes remaining.
The home side was treading water and could not stop the white tide that engulfed them at the breakdown and out wide. Damian McKenzie, Lowe and Pulu pulled them apart.
Shaun Stevenson came on and got in on the act with five minutes remaining to make the game safe.
Hooker Hika Elliot supplied the final dagger, capitalising on a horrendous mistake to score the chiefs’ sixth try of the afternoon.
The Cheetahs wilted under the pressure from the Chiefs, making some catastrophic errors. Junior Pokomela, on for his debut, dropped Zeilinga’s long, floated pass inside his in-goal area to complete the humiliation, as the hooker flopped onto the loose ball.
This defeat kept the Chiefs’ unbeaten run against the Cheetahs going; it is now 20 years and running since the Free State side beat the men from Waikato.
With their place in the tournament in jeopardy, they might never beat them again.
Final score: Cheetahs 27 (24) Chiefs 41 (14)
Tries – Rhule, Van Jaarsveld, F. Venter
Pen – Marais (2)
Con – Marais (3)
Tries – Pulu (2), Kerr-Barlow, Lowe, Stevenson, Elliot
Pen – Cruden
Con – Cruden (4)
Cards – Hames (Yellow, 45th minute)
Referee: Jaco van Heerden
Assistant Ref 1: Marius van der Westhuizen
Assistant Ref 2: Lourens van der Merwe
TMO: Johan Greeff
Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (captain), 12 Nico Lee, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Henco Venter, 7 Teboho Mohoje, 6 Paul Schoeman, 5 Carl Wegner, 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Johan Coetzee, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Retshegofaditswe Nche.
Replacements: 16 Elandré Huggett, 17 Charles Marais, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Francois Uys, 20 Niell Jordaan, 21 Junior Pokomela, 22 Tian Meyer, 23 Fred Zeilinga.
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Sam McNicol, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (co-captain), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (co-captain), 6 Mitchell Brown, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Taleni Seu, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Brayden Mitchell, 1 Kane Hames.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Sosefo Kautai, 19 Dominic Bird, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Alex Nankivell, 23 Shaun Stevenson.