The Cell C Sharks made it a one-two double when we were forced to dig deep in our return leg Currie Cup clash with the Pumas at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, to run out narrow victors.
The Pumas were full value for money and have scalped the likes of the Blue Bulls (51-15), Griquas (27-21) and the Lions (43-26) already this season, and so nearly added the Cell C Sharks to their tally of vanquished.
Leading into the half-time break, we were reduced to 14 men, then 13 as two players received yellow cards within five minutes of each other to place the Cell C Sharks at a distinct disadvantage.
This could so easily have gone bad, but some outstanding defence, demonstrating real character under immense pressure, allowed us to avert further disadvantage as we weathered the storm, then clawed our way back into the game.
“I think an area we will need to work on is going to have to be our discipline,” said head coach Robert du Preez after the match who was less than impressed with the sending off of two players.
“In games like this, as tight as it was, two yellow cards could have proved to be very costly. I’m not happy about that at all.”
The fact that the score line was so close, 27-25, did not surprise the coach who had been explicit in the week leading up to the match that it may well turn out to be the toughest clash in the campaign. He was right as the Pumas pushed us right to the end in tight contest.
“It was a really tough encounter, we expected no different and I had a long chat to the guys early in the week, warning them just how tough it would be,” said du Preez, acknowledging just how strong the Pumas are.
Finding ourselves 10 points down with just over 10 minutes of the match remaining was not a position the team, or the coaching staff, had wanted to contemplate, but a strong finishing in the dying minutes of the game allowed us to cut the lead, overtake it, then protect it.
First Wian Vosloo in the 68th minute, then Rhyno Smith in the 76th minute – both of them substitutes – scored tries to pull the game out of the fire.
“I’m very pleased with the big impact the bench made,” said du Preez, “I thought we showed great character in the end to pull it through.”
The win kept us top of the log, well ahead of the chasing pack. Free State have dropped two matches and are in a precarious position in second spot, with the likes of Western Province and the Golden Lions breathing down their neck.
We travel to Kimberley on Friday to take on Griquas in our away leg match, a side stinging after three consecutive losses in the Currie Cup and who will want to bounce back.
This is our last away game of the pool stages, with matches against the Blue Bulls, Golden Lions and Western Province all hosted at Growthpoint KINGS PARK before the knock-outs in late October.