FREE STATE CHEETAHS 26
GLASGOW WARRIORS 29
By The Offside Line staff
A PERFORMANCE which mixed immense maturity with the odd dash of magic saw Glasgow Warriors make it six wins out of six in the PRO14 and extend their reign as the last undefeated team in a major European league. The Conference A fixture in Bloemfontein witnessed too many mistakes from both teams for it to qualify as a match of the highest quality, but it was a dramatic encounter nonetheless, with the outcome only being decided in the last few minutes.
The Cheetahs had shown in winning their three previous home games that they could be lethal in attack, and they proved that again last night with two tries in the first half. After the break, however, Glasgow restricted their hosts to penalties, and added three tries to the one they had claimed in the first half to ensure they travelled home with the bonus point.
Callum Gibbins was again outstanding, scoring two of the quartet, and there were also impressive displays from the likes of Leonardo Sarto, Ruaridh Jackson, and, on his return to action, Jonny Gray. But on familiar territory, and in their first game at altitude, this was above all a team victory.
Before the season started the Warriors might well have settled for five wins out of six, and with minutes of this game to go that looked exactly what would happen when Cheetahs stand-off Ernst Stapelberg put his team two points up with his fourth successful penalty. Instead, the visitors proved just how fit they are with an irresistible surge upfield that culminated in substitute forward Rob Harley seizing the winning score.
The big question now attention turns to Europe is how much the match and the six-day trip to South Africa have taken out of Dave Rennie’s squad, and their Champions Cup opener in Exeter certainly promises to be at least as demanding as this game was. For the time being, however, they can congratulate themselves on an excellent first phase of the season – one which has gone so well, in fact, that they now look all but officially guaranteed a spot in the PRO14’s new-format play-offs.
The Warriors had Nick Grigg to thank for their first scoring opportunity, when Cheetahs winger Rosco Specman held on in the tackle after being downed by the centre. Finn Russell stepped up to take the penalty from 45 metres, and extended his run of successful consecutive kicks, dating back to the start of the season, to 17.
That was a brief incursion into opposition territory during the first quarter, which the Cheetahs went on to dominate. They had their own avoidable errors to blame for failing to score in their first sustained attacks, but made no mistake after a dozen minutes with a rapid cross-field move. A miss-pass put Specman into space, and he provided the scoring pass for Sergeal Petersen, who touched down in the right corner after Grigg was just unable to tackle him into touch. Stapelberg converted to extend a lead that was no more than the home team deserved at that stage.
Glasgow came back into the game around the middle of the half, and were a metre or two away from regaining the lead when a maul from a lineout collapsed. The scrum was awarded to the Cheetahs, who cleared the danger well despite the pressure that their set piece was continually under.
With 28 minutes played, Stapelberg chipped over a penalty, awarded after Gray had strayed offside, to take the South Africans into double figures. The award had followed another dangerous break by Petersen from well inside his own half, and given the confusion in the Warriors defence at that point, that concession of three points could easily have been worse.
An excellent steal by Jackson brought an unceremonious conclusion to the Cheetahs’ next attack, and that individual intervention sparked a far better spell of team work that culminated in Gibbins’ first score since he joined the Warriors in the close season. Sarto’s half-break down the left wing was enough to nudge the defence out of shape, and when the ball moved infield, Gibbins made use of some space created by Gray around the fringes of the ruck to finish the move off and claim his first try for the team.
Russell’s conversion levelled the score at 10-10, then in the last minute of the half Glasgow had the chance to press home their advantage, only for one moment of slackness to cost them. An unguarded ball at the base of a ruck was snatched by Stapelberg and thumped downfield to be seized upon by Specman, who had the legs to cross in the left corner then run behind towards the posts to give his stand-off a simple conversion.
George Turner replaced Fraser Brown at hooker from the start of the second half, and Glasgow could have quickly been back on terms. Another powerful run from Sarto was kicked on by Sam Johnson, but the centre fumbled forward as he tried to gather off the deck, and then a far more patiently built attack foundered when the Scots went for the kill a couple of phases too early.
The fact that the Warriors had so much ball was an encouraging sign, for all that they were unable to score on either of those occasions, and after they had somewhat fortunately withstood a Cheetahs attack, they grabbed their second try. Jackson began it with an interception deep inside his own half, and although he did not have the legs to go all the way on his own, the full-back had the presence of mind to cut infield before releasing in the tackle. Russell took it on but was quickly brought to the ground, but when Gibbins gathered there were no defenders left to stop him running it in from 10 metres.
Russell was on target to draw the teams level, but it was not long before Stapelberg edged his team in front again with a penalty. With quarter of an hour left the No 10 was on target again to give his team an ominous six-point advantage, but the Warriors had saved the best till last.
With advantage being played, Russell chipped ahead for Jackson, and then substitutes Niko Matawalu and Henry Pyrgos showed great presence of mind to slow the attack down. Matawalu displayed his sevens skills to their best advantage to draw in three men, then produced backhand offload to give Pyrgos a clear run for the last five metres.
Stapelberg’s fourth penalty with five minutes to go nudged the Cheetahs back in front, and it was then that Glasgow most needed some mental resilience to accompany their remarkable physical stamina. They produced it too, as two quick phases put the Cheetahs on the back foot, and a Russell diagonal to the left corner was gathered by a grateful Harley, who flopped down to claim the winning score.
Russell was wide with the conversion attempt to see his streak end at 20, but that hardly mattered. The Warriors were able to take possession from the restart then run the clock down, and the hardest-fought victory of the season so far was theirs.
Free State Cheetahs: S Petersen; R Specman, F Venter, W Small-Smith, M Mapimpi; E Stapelberg, T Meyer; C Marais, T van Jaarsveld, T Botha, J Basson, R Hugo, P Schoeman, H Venter, O Mohoje. Substitutes used: J Coetzee, O Nche, R Bernardo, Du Toit, S Venter, L Obi, J Pokomela, N Lee.
Glasgow Warriors: R Jackson; T Seymour, N Grigg, S Johnson, L Sarto; F Russell, A Price; J Bhatti, F Brown, Z Fagerson, T Swinson, J Gray, R Wilson, C Gibbins, A Ashe. Substitutes used: G Turner, A Allan, H Pyrgos, B Alainu’uese, R Harley, D Rae, P Horne, N Matawalu.
Scorers: Cheetahs: Tries: Petersen, Specman. Cons: Stapelberg 2. Pens: Stapelberg 4.
Glasgow: Tries: Gibbins 2, Pyrgos, Harley. Cons: Russell 3. Pen: Russell.
Scoring sequence (Cheetahs first): 0-3, 5-3, 7-3, 10-3, 10-8, 10-10, 15-10, 17-10 half-time, 17-15, 17-17, 20-17, 23-17, 23-22, 23-24, 26-24, 26-29.
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland).