The British & Irish Lions very nearly slumped to a shock defeat for the second weekend in the row as they were forced to endure a stirring fightback from The Cheetahs on Saturday before eventually prevailing 26-24 in Bloemfontein.
The tourists had raced into a 20-0 lead in the first half after converted tries from Ireland duo Stephen Ferris and Keith Earls, and two penalties from the boot of James Hook.
However, the sin-binning of Ferris midway through the first half offered The Cheetahs a route back into the game and they took it, with Danwel Demas crossing whilst the Ulster flanker was off the field.
Moments later, Wian du Preez charged his way over and there were just six points between the sides as half time approached.
However, Hook slotted over a penalty just before the interval and his flawless-goal kicking kept the Cheetahs at bay until just under eight minutes to go when Shane Williams passed straight to Corne Uys, who raced 80 meters to score.
The Lions, now just two points ahead, tried to play possession rugby but kept turning the ball over and The Cheetahs would have deservedly won the game had Louis Strydom’s 79th-minute drop goal attempt not drifted just to the left of the posts.
The midweek side had thrown down the gauntlet to their Saturday counterparts with a stunning 74-10 demolition of another Super 14 side in the form of The Golden Lions on Wednesday night. That performance had only intensified the pressure on the Saturday side to produce a big performance in Bloemfontein.
The early signs were hardly encouraging. The Lions opened the scoring with a confidently-struck penalty from Hook but Potgieter missed an immediate chance to draw the home side level by dragging a 42-metre kick from the left-hand side narrowly wide of the posts.
However, The Lions needed a break to settle them and one promptly came their way seven minutes in, the ball squirming out of the side of a Cheetahs ruck and into the path of the ever-alert Ferris. The Ireland flanker had provided a demonstration of his freakish pace in Wednesday’s win in Johannesburg with his 70-metre intercept try and with just half that distance to cover this time around and nothing but open space in front of him, he was never going to be caught.
Their confidence now restored, The Lions created a superb second try for themselves five minutes later.
O’Callaghan, who was impressive in the air all afternoon, produced a clean take at the line-out and the ball was swiftly worked into the hands of Hook, who delicately lofted the ball infield and into the grateful arms of Keith Earls. After his Rustenburg woes, this was the opportunity that the young Munsterman would have been hoping for all week and he took it with aplomb, cruising past two men on his way to his first ever try for The Lions.
Hook converted both scores and then added another penalty to put twenty points between the side. It was all looking good for the tourists.
However, the sin-binning of Stephen Ferris, for not rolling away after bringing a half to de Bruyn’s incisive run into the heart of The Lions defense, changed everything.
Indeed, instead of taking the three easy points that were immediately on offer, The Cheetahs opted to kick to touch. What followed was a fantastic spell of possession from the hosts. They calmly took the ball through phase after phase until finally The Lions defense had been stretched to breaking point, and Potgieter put Damas over in the left corner to breathe new life into the game.
Indeed, the score reinvigorated The Cheetahs, who had looked somewhat toothless in the early exchanges. Damas and du Preez were particularly effective in adding some much needed menace to their attacking play and the two very nearly combined for a second try for the former on 33 minutes.
O’Connell had taken the ball into contact just inside Cheetahs territory when Adriaan Strauss emerged with it, much to the shock of The Lions. He ingeniously off-loaded in the tackle – basketball-style – to du Preez, who released Demas down the left wing.
With Hook and Williams both closing in on him, Demas opted to kick ahead. However, in spite of an impressive lunge at the bouncing ball, it reached the end-line before he could reach it.
Still, there was no doubting that The Cheetahs now could smell blood and it came as no surprise when they bagged a second try just moments later.
The Lions had possession inside their own 22 and looked well placed to clear but some terrific work at the breakdown from Springbok Heinrich Brussow saw The Cheetahs reclaim possession. The Lions were caught off guard once more and du Preez barged his way over for a score, which put just six points between the sides.
The Lions looked rattled and were extremely grateful for the three points, which came their way courtesy of a Hook penalty just before the interval. They were also no doubt grateful for some time to lick their wounds. A game which had looked like the quintessential stroll in the park had descended into an all-out war.
The Cheetahs began the second half brightly, too, but each time that Potgieter reduced the deficit with a penalty, Hook replied in kind to keep them at arm’s length... nine points!
The Lions gradually began to reclaim a modicum of control as the game drifted into the final quarter and they engineered plenty of advantageous attacking positions for themselves in the closing stages.
However, they repeatedly turned the ball over with the line in sight and were very nearly punished for their lack of a cutting edge when Uys touched down after intercepting Williams’ loose pass.
Indeed, they came within a whisker of losing the game but Strydom’s drop goal attempt missed its intended target.
It was desperate moment for the Cheetahs debutant, who must have seen immortality flash before his eyes, and he could so easily have been granted a second crack at the goal because an uncharacteristically poor knock-on afforded the home side good field position in the dying seconds.
However, after The Cheetahs had tried to drive forward, thus making the kick a little easier for their young replacement fly-half, Paul O’Connell forced the concession of a penalty, which won the game for the tourists.
However, The Lions captain will have taken little satisfaction from his game-winning play as he will know that further doubts have been raised about the strength of this current pride in Lion. Another backlash will be required in midweek if perceptions are to be altered once more.
Cheetahs: Hennie Daniller; Danwel Demas, Corne Uys, Meyer Bosman, JW Jonker; Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Tewis de Bruyn; Wian Du Preez, Adriaan Strauss, Kobus Calldo; Nico Breedt, David de Villiers; Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Uys, Hendro Scholtz (capt).
Replacements: Richard Strauss, WP Nel, Frans Viljoen, Kabamba Floors, Gerrie Odendaal, Louis Strydom, Fabian Juries.
British & Irish Lions: Lee Byrne; Leigh Halfpenny, Keith Earls, Luke Fitzgerald, Shane Williams; James Hook, Harry Ellis; Andrew Sheridan, Ross Ford, Euan Murray; Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell (capt); Stephen Ferris, Joe Worsley, Andy Powell.
Replacements: Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Simon Shaw, Nathan Hines, Mike Blair, Ronan O’Gara, Gordon D’Arcy.