The Cell C Sharks put in a brave and promising fight in a tough Currie Cup semi-final in Bloemfontein on Saturday but were ultimately undone by a late onslaught by a Toyota Free State side chasing a first title since 2016.
In a game of two halves, a strong first half effort gave the Cell C Sharks superiority at half-time, but Free State had a strong second half, thanks to a plethora of possession, so take the game away and secure a home final in Bloemfontein next weekend.
Free State were under early pressure, not able to get out of their half and Fassi was the try-maker supreme, making a break and then feeding Curwin Bosch for the first try of the match, inside the opening two minutes of the game. Bosch converted for a seven point lead.
Free State’s Tian Schoeman converted a penalty a few minutes later to get the home side on the scoreboard and then put on enough pressure to force a charge-down of an attempted clearance before taking the close-quarters attack through numerous phases and then the inevitable score in the corner for a one point lead.
Although Schoeman missed the conversion, he added a second penalty with the game approaching the end of the first quarter. But their 11-7 lead was soon cancelled out when Sanele Nohamba pounced on a loose ball and managed to evade the defence to score in the corner after a patient build-up as the Cell C Sharks retook the lead.
Free State butchered three gilt-edged scoring opportunities as they lacked composure in the red zone and then under pressure themselves, conceded a penalty following a strong build-up as Bosch put his tem into a 15-11 lead with just less than 10 minutes of a pulsating half remaining.
As the first half wound down towards its end, Hyron Andrews managed to poach a Free State lineout and his team-mates struck quickly, Aphelele Fassi finding space out wide and feeding Lwazi Mvovo to score our third try. Coming as it did just before half-time was a psychological blow for the home side to concede points at this crucial juncture and delivered a 20 point to 11 lead as the teams headed for the changerooms.
The action didn’t let up in the second half but unfortunately the exciting Fassi had to hobble from the field after taking contact while clearing the ball. We were first to score when Free State were penalised for off-sides and Bosch added the three, but the home side managed to strike back with another patient build-up to cut the lead to seven points after the conversion went wide.
Free State started to grow in confidence after earning a few turnovers, and despite having a third lineout stolen from them, managed to strike back with a quick throw as the game neared the last quarter and former Cell C Sharks scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar finished off the surprise move and then converted to level matters at 23-all.
Two minutes later, Free State struck again, finding gaps and then scoring their fourth try, the conversion sending them to a 30-23 lead. But the drama continued to unfold as we hammered away at the defence before Bosch lured the defence to drift wide and then a huge gap opened as he shot through and then converted to even matters with just under a quarter of an hour remaining.
The topsy-turvy nature of the match continued as Free State scored again with 10 minutes left and with Pienaar’s conversion it was back to a seven point game. Two minutes later the Cheetahs maul was too strong and got them into a try-scoring position and their forwards duly obliged with the try that, together with the conversion, took them into an unassailable 14 point lead.
A try right at the death pushed them into a 51-30 lead and by then there was just one outcome.
Cell C Sharks co-captain Tera Mtembu paid tribute to Free State’s effort to earn the honour of hosting next week’s final.
“It was a tough one, credit to the Cheetahs who have played some good rugby this season and they showed their ability with their second half effort against us. They caught us napping a bit in the second half, they got too much momentum and with a side like this, if they get ball they’ll run you all day.
“I’m proud of the guys. They showed character this season with the three wins that got us into the semi-final.”