RUGBY NEWS - Rugby World Cup winner Ruan Pienaar marshalled Free State Cheetahs brilliantly as they held on for a 31-28 victory over Golden Lions Saturday in to win South Africa's Currie Cup.
It was a scoreline few in the 38,858 Bloemfontein crowd would have envisaged with 10 minutes left as the hosts held a 24-point advantage.
But as the Cheetahs tired, the Lions scored three converted tries before running out of time in a pulsating climax to the most memorable Currie Cup season for some time.
Scrum-half Pienaar, who was part of the 2007 Springboks World Cup-winning squad, kicked four conversions, and the penalty that eventually proved the difference between the teams.
"These Cheetahs are a special group who played outstanding rugby in the first half," said the 35-year-old former Ulster and Montpellier half-back, who returned home this year.
"I grew up watching the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein and tonight we maintained the tradition of this club by playing a brand of rugby that entertains crowds.
"We tired in the closing stages after defending heroically for much of the second half but, thankfully, the lead was sufficient to see us through."
Pienaar was a calming influence on his younger team-mates and excelled in his role as goal kicker, slotting several of the conversions from difficult angles.
- Catalyst -
Rival scrum-half and Lions skipper Ross Cronje admitted that Pienaar was the catalyst of the Cheetahs' triumph, their first in the competition since 2016.
"Ruan controlled the game," admitted the former Springbok, "but I am very proud of the way we fought until the final whistle."
Having been forced to defend for opening 10 minutes, the Cheetahs were first to score through Joseph Dweba, a hooker who finished as joint leading Currie Cup try scorer with seven.
After the Lions levelled at 7-7 thanks to Wandisile Simelane, the home side scored 24 unanswered points before half-time, starting with a Pienaar penalty.
Between the 26th and 37th minutes, William Small-Smith, Clayton Blommetjies and Walt Steenkamp scored with Pienaar converting all three tries for a 31-7 advantage by the break.
As the referee grew impatient with constant second-half infringements, Cheetahs lock Sintu Manjezi was yellow-carded on 66 minutes for collapsing a maul.
Teammate Abongile Nonkontwana and the Lions' Dillon Smit were also sin-binned, three minutes from time.
Smit had triggered the late Lions' tally and his try was followed by two from another substitute, James Venter, with Shaun Reynolds converting them all.
The final was preceded by 30 seconds of silence in honour of Chester Williams, the 1995 Springbok Rugby World Cup winner who died Friday in Cape Town from a heart attack.