A brave second-half comeback from Cardiff Blues was dashed by an 87th minute penalty try for the Cheetahs after an enthralling game in Bloemfontein.
It comes after a chaotic week that started with qualifying for the European Challenge Cup semi-finals in Edinburgh last week, before descending into travel misery as the squad were delayed by 36 hours on the journey to South Africa. The kick-off was put back by three hours as a result, but the preparation was still far from ideal.
Before knowing about the nightmare journey that lay in wait, Danny Wilson had made 11 changes to the starting XV that won in Scotland last week, as the squad sported an all-new tight five, new half-backs, and missed out on the experience of Gethin Jenkins, Nick Williams and Blaine Scully.
However, despite all the changes and the travel issues, it was almost a dream start for the visitors thanks to Matthew Morgan. The full-back fielded a Cheetahs clearance and danced passed a few defenders before poking a kick into space. Garyn Smith chased but couldn’t hack the ball on, however Morgan followed up only to fumble the ball as the try line beckoned.
Fortunately Smith was adjudged to have been tackled without the ball and Gareth Anscombe was able to open the scoring off the kicking tee inside five minutes.
That sparked the Cheetahs into life though, and they proceeded to show off their dangerous running game. Uzair Cassiem was the recipient of an offload and set off downfield, finding Tian Meyer on his shoulder, but the scrum-half was brought down by Morgan.
The home side recycled quickly and attempted a cross field kick, but when it was not successful they came back for a midfield penalty and Niel Marais drew the two sides level with ease.
With 10 minutes on the clock a second golden chance went begging for Cardiff Blues when Owen Lane was unable to find Alex Cuthbert free on the right wing as the visitors attacking in the redzone, but Cheetahs wouldn’t make the same mistake when their opportunity to score arose.
Two lost Cardiff Blues lineouts gave the hosts field position on the edge of the 22. Quick hands in midfield tied up the defenders, and eventually captain Francois Venter was able to free Clayton Blommetjies on the left who drew the final defender and gave Sibhale Maxwane the easiest of run-ins.
Marais missed the conversion though, and Anscombe kept the scoreline close at 8-6 when full-back Blommetjies deliberately slapped down the ball on a dangerous looking attack with Olly Robinson running clear and Lloyd Williams acting in support.
A yellow card followed for the Scarlets bound player, but it didn’t stop Cheetahs style of attacking play, and soon they had put Cardiff to the sword even with 14-men.
Off first phase ball they slid down the blindside of a maul, with William Small-Smith running free before being pulled down inside the 22. Robinson and Navidi tried to slow the ball down, but a noticeably lethargic Blues pack struggled to re-form quickly enough, and Venter found plenty of space in the left channel to score a second try of the game.
This time Marais did add the extras, and Cardiff attempts to stay in the game were dealt a blow by injuries to Garyn Smith and Gareth Anscombe as well as a yellow card for Owen Lane who pushed Maxwane out of the way in the act of saving a Cheetahs try.
With the hosts back up to a full compliment of players, they opted to scrum from the penalty in the Cardiff 22, and one long miss-pass found Maxwane waiting for another free-run to score. Marais converted again, and the score showed 22-6 at half-time.
After a distinctly heavy-legged and inaccurate first half, in which we struggled to contend with the Cheetahs unstructured attacking game, it seemed like we might be in for a long 40 minutes after the break. Andrew Coombs and James Hook certainly though so in the Scrum V studio anyway.
They’ve clearly not been paying attention to Cardiff Blues this season though, for this is not any old run of the mill playing squad, there is something special about them, and they proved that by coming out fighting after half-time.
Dominating possession for the first 10 minutes of the second half, eventually a clean break was manufactured when Josh Navidi bumped off a defender and produced a lovely offload for Damian Welch. The lock was brought down inside the Cheetahs 22, and after a number of phases went close to scoring, Owen Lane was able to break a tackle and dive over.
Shinger added the extras, but it seemed like the comeback would be short-lived as Cheetahs launched a lengthy attacking set of phases. Powering down field, Tian Meyer was stopped on the goal line, only for the ball to squirm loose and into the hands of Francois Venter who gladly dived over for a second try.
Referee Mike Adamson was very quick to award the try, however, just as Niel Marais was preparing to kick the conversion, a reverse angle replay seemed to cast doubt over the validity of the score. The TMO swung into action, and sure enough a perfectly placed Willis Halaholo left foot had managed to knock the ball out of the hands of the Cheetahs captain.
Granted a reprieve, Cardiff Blues managed to clear their lines, and after forcing a handling error, won a scrum penalty. With good attacking ball it was down to the backs to make the South Africans pay, and they did with aplomb as, energised by Tomos Williams on at scrum-half, first Lee-Lo and then Halaholo were able to make significant carries.
The latter of those would see Willis dance superbly past two defenders, before beating another with a fend for a wonderful individual try. Shingler added the extras to haul the visitors back within two points of Cheetahs.
As expected, the home side tried to hit straight back, and once again the ball made it over the Cardiff Blues try line, but this time a successful last-ditch tackle from Lane kept Blommetjies at bay and the away side were ready to take full advantage.
Steve Shingler was controlling the game impressively from fly-half, keeping Cheetahs on their toes with a varied attacking game, before turning the back three with clever kicks in behind. When one of the return kicks found him just in touch, he again produced the unexpected by taking the quick throw, when the opposition and some of his own forwards, may have predicted slowing the game down.
Fortunately Matthew Morgan was on the same wavelength as Shingler, and with a big pitch and tired legs in front of him, the full-back set off across field. Taking in defenders with his running, he eventually offloaded to Alex Cuthbert who linked the play to Halaholo, before the centre found his mate Lee-Lo with an offload for the Samoan to score under the posts.
For the first time since the 5th minute of the game Cardiff Blues were ahead, but a long 13 minutes lay ahead as weary legs tired in the altitude of a soaking wet Bloemfontein.
Penalties conceded by Olly Robinson and Seb Davies did not help the cause, allowing Cheetahs into out 22, before Alex Cuthbert received a yellow card for a deliberate knock on as the try line came under increasingly heavy siege.
Another driving maul was seen off, but Cardiff were pinged for being offside during the defensive set, and Cheetahs opted to pack down, which would start a series of scrums that eventually decided the game.
Six scrums, a TMO referral, a third yellow card for the visitors and finally a penalty try in the 88th minute of the game saw Cardiff Blues play-off hopes dashed in desperately disappointing circumstances.
Debate raged after the game about the refereeing at the scrum, with many Cardiff Blues fans disappointed that referee Adamson failed to penalise the Cheetahs tighthead for boring in, rather than Brad Thyer and then Rhys Gill, but the damage had been done.
There is no doubt that the travelling woes played a part in the rustiness of the set piece and general lethargy of the defence and attacking breakdown work in the first half, but the players will no doubt be disappointed in certain aspects of the game, specifically leaving two tries out on the field in the first half.
However, the overwhelming feeling has to be one of pride. To come back from 22-6 at half-time, to lead as the clock turned red, after over 50 hours of travelling, not arriving until less than 24 hours before kick-off, the airline losing the bags, having no time to adjust to the altitude or train, and making 11 changes to the starting XV, is a monumental effort.
The players should take great confidence from their efforts and, with a few players set to come back into the squad for next weekend, a big win over Pro14 Conference B bottom side the Kings is on the cards. This amazing season keeps on rolling, come on Cardiff!