Cheetahs 24-26 British & Irish Lions, Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein
Lions scrape past fiery Cheetahs
June 6, 2009
Keith Earls scored the Lions' second try
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The British & Irish Lions won a fiercely contested game against the Free State Cheetahs 26-24 at Vodacom Park in Bloemfontein, scraping to victory in the sternest test faced so far on tour.
Irish duo Stephen Ferris and Keith Earls scored early tries for the Lions who looked fluid in the opening stages, before the home side burst in to life. Danwel Demas, Wian du Preez and Corne Uys crossed for the side that has registered three Currie Cup wins in the last four seasons as they looked to banish the memory of their last-place finish in the Super 14.
Lions boss Ian McGeechan included Leigh Halfpenny on the wing after he joined up with the squad having recovered from a thigh injury, while Gordon D'Arcy took a place on the bench days after his late call-up as cover for the injured Riki Flutey. The Cheetahs included openside Heinrich Brussow - one of the outstanding players in the Super 14 and out to prove a point having been overlooked for Springbok selection.
The Lions, powered by an aggressive start from Andy Powell, took an early stranglehold on proceedings thanks to a long-range penalty from Hook and a second try in four days from Irish flanker Stephen Ferris. On Wednesday he rounded off a fine team effort with a 75m interception and in Bloemfontein he took an early chance to show off his acceleration. When the ball spilled out of the side of a Cheetahs ruck Ferris was on to it in a shot - he scored under the sticks before the defence had a chance to look up.
With the Cheetahs pack under heavy pressure, the Lions backs took an opportunity to send a message to their team-mates. Keith Earls, smarting after an error strewn Lions debut last weekend was the man to profit, latching on to a sumptuous chip over the defence from Hook before arching his way around the Cheetahs defence to score the Lions' second. Hook converted and added another penalty before the Cheetahs finally grew in to the game.
Ferris was sent to the sin-bin after he was guilty of killing the ball as the Cheetahs made their first incursion in to the Lions' 22. With great patience the home side pressed home their numerical advantage, attacking the tourists with pace and power - Brussow becoming conspicuous with his stocky and powerful snipes around the fringes. With the Lions defence stretched a superb pass from Jacques-Louis Potgeiter caught Halfpenny off balance, winger Danwel Demas securing the ball before racing in to score under the posts.
Demas was immediately back in to the action, profiting from an intercept and racing clear. His searing pace took him clear of Shane Williams and Lee Byrne, but his final chip was horribly overcooked. As the ball bobbled dead he swan dived after it - getting a face full of turf rather than congratulations for his second try.
The Cheetahs refused to let up however as they turned Powell over from the scrum - his desire for contact beginning to spell trouble against the combative Brussow - and prop Wian du Preez was handed the ball with no-one Byrne to beat. The fullback had no chance and Potgeiter converted to bring the home side right back in to contention. Hook landed another penalty before the break as Ferris was reintroduced, but they looked rattled as the half-time siren sounded.
Potgeiter ensured that the pressure on the Lions did not decrease by landing an early penalty in the second-half, and despite some competent phase play the Lions failed to convert any pressure. Powell was again stripped of possession, although his fellow forwards were guilty at times of leaving him isolated, and Euan Murray was also guilty of spurning chances to bring the back-three in to the game.
In the tight, Murray and Co. won another penalty that was converted by Hook before Potgeiter again found his range to keep the Lions looking over their shoulders. Brussow, outstanding and technically superior to his opposite number Joe Worsley, continued to reap the rewards at the breakdown and thwarted multiple Lions moves at source.
The home side received a rash of penalties as the Lions were on the back foot at the breakdown, but it was a Lions turnover that yielded the next scoring chance. Ferris was again involved, stretching the Cheetahs defence before finding an offload to Earls, lurking on the wing. The Munster centre was well marked and despite his pace was bundled in to touch.
As the clock ticked down the Lions looked to have worked another scoring chance after some excellent play between Williams and Byrne, with Powell and skipper O'Connell carrying well to open space for Earls. Again the Lions were denied by the scrambling work of the Cheetahs on the floor, replacement hooker Richardt Strauss the latest to wrest possession from the tourists as they looked to surge across the tryline.
Ellis was guilty of losing his discipline when he needlessly gave a penalty away at a Cheetahs scrum, and while Strydom was wide with his kick the home side were soon celebrating their third try. With O'Connell signalling a scrum in the shadow of the Cheetahs posts, looking to wind down the clock through his dominant scrum, the ball worked its way wide to Williams. With the defence firm he popped an offload to Hook - only for a ready and willing Corne Uys to intercept a 50-50 ball and race away to draw the Cheetahs back to within two points.
A rudimentary knock on from Kabamba Floors from the restart allowed the Lions another chance but the opportunity was wasted with more poor distribution from Ellis, allowing the Cheetahs to clear their lines. The back-row of the tourists was again drawn in to focus as replacement Gordon D'Arcy was left to fend for himself and penalised for holding on.
The home side almost took full advantage when Strydom rocked back and hit a sweet drop-goal 50m, with the ball dropping agonisingly wide for the home side. James Hook hammered the restart long only for Byrne to blot his copybook by dropping a simple return kick. The Cheetahs pack weighed in and secured the ball, inching forward in pursuit of the winning goal. Barnes' whistle rang out - to the relief of the Lions it was in their favour. Hook heaved the ball in to touch for a win that was too close to call going in to the final moments.
Cheetahs: H Daniller; D Demas, C Uys, M Bosman, JW Jonker; JL Potgieter, T de Bruyn; W du Preez, A Straas, K Calldo; N Breedt, D de Villiers; H Broussow, F Uys, H Scholtz.
Replacements: G Odendal for de Bruyn 45 mins; WP Nel for Calldo 46 mins; F Viljoen for Breedt 46 mins; L Strydom for Potgieter 60 mins; K Floors for Scholtz 63 mins.
British & Irish Lions: L Byrne (Wales); L Halfpenny (Wales), K Earls (Ireland), L Fitzgerald (Ireland), S Williams (Wales); J Hook (Wales), H Ellis (England); A Sheridan (England), R Ford (Scotland), E Murray (Scotland); D O'Callaghan (Ireland), P O'Connell (Ireland, capt); S Ferris (Ireland), J Worsley (England), A Powell (Wales).
Replacements: M Rees (Wales) for Ford 63 mins; A Jones (Wales) for Murray 63 mins; N Hines (Scotland) for Worsley 67 mins; G D'Arcy (Ireland) for Fitzgerald 74 mins.
Sin bin: S Ferris (Lions) 22 mins.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referee: Mark Lawrence, Craig Joubert Television match official: Johann Meuwes
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.