Currie Cup Champions Cheetahs Eliminated After Last-Gasp Loss

Johannesburg, Jan 2 (AFP/APP): A heart-breaking 31-29 home loss to Western Province eliminated defending champions the Cheetahs from the South African Currie Cup in Bloemfontein Saturday.

The title-holders were clinging to a one-point lead in a sixth round thriller when they conceded a scrum penalty as the clock ticked to 80 minutes. Up stepped England-born Province fly-half Tim Swiel to score off an angled penalty from between the 22 and 10 metre lines and snatch victory for the visitors from Cape Town. Defeat meant the Cheetahs remained fifth in the standings with one match to play, away to the Griquas, and out of contention for a semi-finals place.

Province, whose last-gasp victory kept them second, seemed to be cruising to victory when they led 23-9 after 53 minutes on an overcast evening. But 17 minutes later a Cheetahs side that had battled in the scrums for much of the match were 26-23 ahead following tries from hooker Wilmar Arnoldi and winger Rosko Specman.

A pushover Province try by hooker Bongi Mbonambi put them back in front only for the man of the match, Cheetahs centre Francois Steyn, to kick a penalty and give the hosts a 29-28 advantage. Swiel then slotted his seventh penalty to win a match that had been a kick fest for so long before delivering a dramatic climax.

“I am gutted,” admitted two-time World Cup winner Steyn as he battled to hold back tears while accepting the man-of-the-match award. “Nothing seems to be going our way. We fought so hard to get in front only to lose at the death. It is a bitterly disappointing outcome.”

Flawless goal-kicking

Steyn gave another flawless goal-kicking display with a seven-from-seven record for the second successive weekend in the 129-year-old Currie Cup, the oldest provincial rugby competition in the world. While Steyn contributed 19 points, former sevens star Swiel finished with 21, kicking seven penalties from 10 shots at the posts. The Bloemfontein drama overshadowed two other matches in which the Lions edged the Pumas 33-25 in Mbombela and the Sharks scored seven tries to overwhelm the Griquas 47-19 in Durban.

Lions full-back Tiaan Swanepoel added to his rapidly growing reputation by scoring 22 points, including two tries, as the Johannesburg outfit dominated the second half after trailing 17-13 at the break. Springbok centre Lukhanyo Am, tipped by many pundits as a future successor to national team captain Siya Kolisi, was among the Sharks’ try scorers in the bonus-point triumph. Title favourites the Bulls, who had a bye, and Province, the teams with the most successful Currie Cup records, have 35 points each.

The Bulls host the Lions and visit the Pumas next week while Province have home advantage over the Sharks in a match set to decide who finishes second and gets a home semi-final. Assuming they finish first, the Jake White-coached Bulls will host the other semi-final and, if successful, the January 23 final as well.

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