Sharp-clawed Cheetahs outmuscle Pumas to clinch Currie Cup victory
The table-topping Cheetahs claimed a deserved Currie Cup victory in front of nearly 34,000 jubilant Free State supporters on Saturday.
The Cheetahs claimed their seventh Currie Cup title by defeating the Pumas 25-17 on Saturday.
The Cheetahs were more enterprising in front of 33,804 white and orange-clad supporters at the Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein as they ran in three tries to the Pumas’ one.
It was a deserved win for the men from Mangaung, who topped the Currie Cup table after the round-robin phase — losing only four of their 14 regular season matches. They were also on a four-match unbeaten run heading into the final, having dispatched the Bulls 39-10 a week before, in the semifinals.
It was fitting that the Cheetahs’ general, the 39-year-old veteran Ruan Pienaar — who kicked two conversions and two penalties — picked the ball up after a centre scrum and booted it into the roaring stands at fulltime to signal the home side’s first Currie Cup title since 2019.
“He’s still going and probably is the hardest worker in our team at that age, which is why he can still play high-quality rugby,” Cheetahs coach Hawies Fourie said after the clash.
“He’s an unbelievable person, rugby player, and father for his kids as well. It’s a privilege to have the experience and quality of Ruan in our squad.”
After the nerves settled in what was an expansive and frantic first 10 minutes, Pienaar and Pumas flyhalf Tinus de Beer exchanged a pair of penalties and the sides were locked on 6-6 after 24 minutes.
The rumbling Cheetahs pack then got the home side within inches of the tryline after sustained pressure, before inside centre Reinhardt Fortuin dotted down from close range.
It only took the Pumas five minutes to hit back with a try of their own. De Beer put in a deft cross-kick for Andrew Kota on the right wing who showed strength to stay on his feet and offload to centre Ali Mgijima who folded on his outside and cantered in untouched.
With the scores deadlocked at 11-11 with halftime approaching, the Cheetahs forwards got rumbling with their strong driving maul once more and again a backline player was a recipient of their hard work.
A few long passes after the Cheetahs pack sucked in the Pumas defence on the right corner saw flying winger Cohen Jasper benefit on the left-hand corner for the Cheetahs’ second try of the half as the Free State side took an 18-11 lead into the change-rooms.
The traditional change of kit for the Pumas at halftime seemed to do the trick as they came out with intensity and won two early penalties which De Beer converted to make it a one-point game at 18-17 within six minutes of the restart.
But that was all the Mbombela side had left in the tank from a Currie Cup season that started in March. The ball spilled loose after another strong Cheetahs driving maul just after the 50th minute which scrumhalf Rewan Kruger collected and dotted down, carrying a would-be tackler over the tryline with him.
Pienaar’s successful touchline conversion was the final points of the game as the final 25 minutes turned into a tactile arm wrestle.
Pienaar ensured the Cheetahs played the game in the Pumas’ half, with his team happy with their eight-point cushion.
De Beer had an opportunity to give his side a sniff of a late victory but his 76th-minute long-range penalty attempt flew wide, sealing a Cheetahs win and an unsuccessful Currie Cup title defence for the Pumas.
Last season the Pumas beat the table-topping Cheetahs 38-35 in the semifinal of the Currie Cup in Bloemfontein before they went on to win their maiden title. This season’s title was sweet revenge for Fourie and his men.
“Last year, we made some mistakes in the semifinal in the last 10-12 minutes and we ended up losing the game,” the winning coach said.
“This year, we kept our nerves and we executed what we wanted to do very well in the last 10 minutes.
“We were lucky to have good leaders on the field and they made good decisions; they were calm and that was important for us.”
Fourie also acknowledged that Saturday’s victory was the fulfilment of a long-held dream.
“It is special and it’s something that I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid,” Fourie added.
“The first game of rugby I watched on TV as a kid was the 1976 final between Free State and Western Province.
“Since then, I became a Free State supporter, so to be in this position to win the trophy as the coach of a team I’ve been supporting as a kid is special.” DM