The Gallagher Chiefs have recorded a superb come from behind win at Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein, coming back from 24-0 down to score six tries and beat the Cheetahs 41-27.
After conceding three tries in the opening quarter, the Gallagher Chiefs slowly found their feet and kicked on to produce an impressive second half display, with two tries in the final five minutes securing a bonus point victory which takes them past the Hurricanes into second spot in the New Zealand conference.
A bright start from the home side saw them threaten on more than one occasion, and they deservedly grabbed an early lead thanks to a penalty from first five Niel Marais.
More good territory for the Cheetahs applied pressure on the Gallagher Chiefs defence and their positive play was rewarded when Raymond Rhule came in off his left wing to score next to the posts off a pass from halfback Shaun Venter.
With the early momentum in their favour, it wasn’t long before the Cheetahs found themselves in another good attacking position. They went back to the lineout maul that had already proven effective, and this time resulted in their second try of the afternoon to hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld.
Marais added the extras to stretch the early lead out to 17 points in as many minutes.
The onslaught continued with the Cheetahs in again just minutes later. Some brilliant ball retention, keeping the play alive whenever possible, had the Gallagher Chiefs defence back-peddling and eventually it was centre Francois Venter who finished off with most of the team involved in the build up play.
Marais made no mistake from in front to take the score out to 24-0 after just 22 minutes of play.
After defending for virtually the entire first quarter, the Gallagher Chiefs didn’t take long to respond once they finally got their hands on the ball and wing Toni Pulu scored with a slick one handed finish just inside the right hand touchline.
The final 10 minutes of the first half saw plenty more entertaining rugby with both sides lacking the finishing touches, until the Gallagher Chiefs struck a crucial blow right on halftime when Pulu crashed over for his second try, following on from his double last weekend.
Cruden’s second conversion narrowed the deficit to 10 points as the teams went into the halftime break.
The Cheetahs started the second half much like the first, with a sustained period on attack testing the Gallagher Chiefs defence, and a yellow card to prop Kane Hames made the task even more difficult for the visitors.
With half an hour remaining the Cheetahs extended their lead out with a second penalty from Marais but that was immediately wiped out by a three-pointer at the other end from Cruden.
Still with a man in the sin bin, the Gallagher Chiefs managed to move downfield and, after initial runs from Damian McKenzie and Sam McNicol, halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow burst clear to score which brought the Chiefs to within five points.
The Gallagher Chiefs made it a double strike soon after as they moved the ball with urgency from side to side which created space down the left for wing James Lowe to cross the line. Cruden’s conversion put the Gallagher Chiefs in front for the first time in the match.
As the match moved into the final 15 minutes it was the Cheetahs who began to look dangerous once again. Some good continuity of possession tested the Gallagher Chiefs defence but they did enough to deny each attacking movement.
Replacement Fred Zeilinga had a chance to put the Cheetahs back in front with a tricky penalty attempt on the angle, but it drifted just wide.
Somewhat against the run of play then came the killer blow as Cruden took play down the short side and placed a well weighted kick over the top which sat up perfectly for replacement wing Shaun Stevenson who ran the final 20 metres to score.
A desperate Cheetahs side threw caution to the wind in the final moments, looking to run the ball out from their own line, and some rush defence from the Gallagher Chiefs forced a handling error with replacement hooker Hika Elliot on hand to score a simple try and seal the bonus point win.
Gallagher Chiefs 41 (Toni Pulu 2, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, James Lowe, Shaun Stevenson, Hika Elliot tries; Aaron Cruden 4 cons, pen) Cheetahs 27 (Raymond Rhule, Torsten van Jaarsveld, Francois Venter tries; Niel Marais 3 cons, 2 pens) HT: 14-24.
The road trip continues for the Gallagher Chiefs as they visit the Force in Perth on Saturday 22 April (9.45pm NZ time) before returning home to FMG Stadium Waikato to take on the Sunwolves the following Saturday evening.