The Crusaders’ Super 14 playoffs run hit a snag as the bottom-placed Cheetahs produced another big upset in Bloemfontein.
Rugbyheaven NZ reports that the Cheetahs returned to the scene of their 31-6 boilover against the Sharks a fortnight earlier to stun the defending champions 20-13 and end the Crusaders’ five-match unbeaten streak.
Despite having 63 percent of possession, the Crusaders struggled to finish their many scoring chances against a willing home defence.
The game was in the balance until five minutes before fulltime when Cheetahs fullback Hennie Daniller stormed onto a short ball to dive over and seal a two-tries-to-one victory.
Leon MacDonald’s penalty from out wide, two minutes into injury time, at least secured a bonus point as the Crusaders eye the Lions in Johannesburg next week to try and resurrect their title defence.
“We started pretty well but we just didn’t take a couple of opportunities we had near the start. If we’d taken those it might have kept us going,” captain Richie McCaw told SuperSport.
“The Cheetahs are a good side, they hit back and put us under pressure and we turned the ball over too many times in that second half and couldn’t build pressure.
“There’s not much between all the teams if you look at how congested the log is. You’ve got to turn up and if you’re not quite on your game you finish second. ”
Fresh from a win over the Sharks, the Crusaders began the round three points outside the top-four. Coach Todd Blackadder made five changes to his starting side to keep them fresh, including the benching of key men MacDonald, Andy Ellis and Keiran Read.
The Cheetahs somehow led 10-7 at halftime after the Crusaders completely dominated the opening quarter but only had a converted Kahn Fotuali’i try to show for it.
With their set piece solid, the Crusaders’ backs gave the ball plenty of air and it looked ominous as they stretched the home defence out wide.
Impressive midfielder Ryan Crotty sparked the opening try when he carved through a gap, then halfback Fotuali’i dived over untouched from a ruck.
But other opportunities went begging as the Crusaders mirrored the Chiefs’ early struggles against the same opponents a week earlier.
A Naas Olivier penalty got the hosts on the board, then some brilliance from Springboks winger Jongi Nokwe saw the Cheetahs hit the lead.
A chip and chase nearly secured Nokwe a stunning individual try but he was denied by excellent cover by Kade Poki. Then, two minutes later, the Cheetahs finally strung passes together to put centre Corne Uys in the clear who fed Nokwe in a 30m canter to the line.
The Cheetahs’ confidence lifted noticeably after the break as they tested the staunch Crusaders defence.
McCaw had his own problems as a deep cut to his head left his face bloodied and required heavy bandaging to allow him to continue.
With alarm bells starting to ring, Blackadder emptied his bench as All Blacks MacDonald and Ellis arrived in the 50th minute.
Read was injected soon afterwards as Stephen Brett’s penalty levelled the scores.
Olivier’s second penalty reclaimed the lead in the 55th minute when Isaac Ross and Tim Bateman were penalised for a dangerous lifting tackle.
With MacDonald adding some punch, the Crusaders kept attacking but vital dropped passes kept it in the balance.
Brett had the chance to tie the scores in the 72nd minute but his penalty sailed wide, before Daniller clinched it.
Cheetahs 20: Jongi Nokwe, Hennie Daniller tries; Naas Olivier 2 pen, 2 con.
Crusaders 13: Kahn Fotuali’i try; Stephen Brett pen, con, Leon MacDonald pen.Tweet