BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (AFP) – Central Cheetahs won five consecutive Super Rugby matches for the first time when they snatched a dramatic 26-24 victory over Western Stormers Saturday in a South African derby.
A multi-phase post-siren attack by the home team that started in their half was rewarded when they were awarded a 35-metre penalty close to the touchline at Free State Stadium.
Up stepped fly-half Burton Francis, elevated to the first team recently after star Johan Goosen sustained a serious injury during training, and he calmly slotted the ball between the posts.
Francis kicked three penalties, a drop goal and the conversions of tries by centre Robert Ebersohn and replacement scrum-half Sarel Pretorius as the Cheetahs made history in mild, South African autumn conditions.
Stormers full-back Joe Pietersen was successful with four penalties and one conversion and centre Juan de Jongh bagged a brace of tries for the 2012 Super 15 semi-finalists.
The Cheetahs, used to occasional victories in the southern hemisphere championship and a bottom-half position throughout the season, are sixth on the combined standings and second in the South African conference.
After losing narrowly at home to fellow South Africans Coastal Sharks and heavily away to title holders Waikato Chiefs of New Zealand, the Bloemfontein franchise have turned their season around.
A win over Otago Highlanders in New Zealand was followed by victories against NSW Waratahs and Western Force in Australia and at home to the touring Melbourne Rebels last weekend.
But the sweetest success was against the Stormers from Cape Town, a team they had not beaten since 2007, and who looked likely victors for much of an absorbing encounter.
Vowing to win in memory of chief executive Gerda von Solms, 58, who died on the eve of the match after being admitted to hospital with abdominal pains, the Cheetahs overcame a line-out deficiency to triumph through sheer will power.
Even the loss of Pretorius, who scored an opportunist try just after coming on only to retire injured almost immediately, did not deflate the spirit of the home team.
“Our supporters were fantastic and pulled us through,” said Cheetahs hooker and captain Adriaan Strauss. “We dedicate this victory to them and to Gerda, who was a wonderful servant to rugby in this region.”
It was the fourth loss in six outings for a Stormers side packed with Springboks and centre and captain Jean de Villiers cut a disappointed figure at the final whistle.
“This game could have gone either way and we lost to a quality team in the Cheetahs. We must take a long look in the mirror now and return to training on Monday with a good attitude.”
A seesaw struggle from the kick-off saw the Cheetahs establish an early 7-3 advantage before a couple of De Jongh tries enabled the Stormers to turn over 15-7 ahead.
The home team fought back in the second half and twice took a slender lead before Pietersen kicked his fourth penalty four minutes from time to edge the Stormers into a 24-23 lead they held until the third minute of additional time.