Cheetahs make playoffs, Blues’ hopes over
BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (AP) — The Cheetahs beat the Blues 34-13 to reach the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time on Saturday and decide the top six finishers in the southern hemisphere championship.
The Cheetahs outscored New Zealand’s Blues three tries to one at Free State Stadium to be the last team into the post-season playoff games and also end the Blues’ own chances of making it through.
Blues scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park went over inside five minutes for the opening try in a must-win game for both teams. But the Cheetahs worked their way back through Philip van der Walt’s score in the 22nd and the boot of flyhalf Riaan Smit, who kicked seven from eight shots at goal for 19 points in all.
The Cheetahs led 19-10 at halftime and then pulled away with late tries by replacements Sarel Pretorius and Boom Prinsloo, who both crossed in the last six minutes to seal the home team’s spot as one of the wild card teams.
The Cheetahs will finish at least sixth after being guaranteed another four points from their bye next week. The Bloemfontein-based team made the semifinals in 2000 and 2001 as part of the larger Cats franchise, but has never been to the knockout games as the Cheetahs.
Two teams each from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia will contest the playoffs, with the top place in the league standings still undecided.
Gibson-Park scuttled over on the left side after a ranging break by No. 8 Peter Saili for the Auckland-based Blues to strike first in the fourth minute. Cheetahs No. 8 Van der Walt broke off the back of a scrum after a win against the head and stretched out to score between the posts in reply.
Smit was perfect in the first 40 from the kicking tee with three penalties and a conversion as the Cheetahs opened a nine-point advantage.
Despite being dominated in the set-piece, and at the scrum especially, the Blues were only six points behind with just over 20 minutes to go as the nervy Cheetahs missed a string of chances to put the game away.
The break came when scrumhalf Pretorius spun out of a tackle at the back of a ruck around 10 meters out and burst through the hole to score the Cheetahs’ second try in the 74th minute.
Replacement loose forward Prinsloo touched down in the 78th for the victory-sealing score, ensuring the Cheetahs’ best-ever season in Super Rugby would continue to the playoffs.
Cheetahs 34 (Philip van der Walt, Sarel Pretorius, Boom Prinsloo tries; Riaan Smit 2 conversions, 5 penalties), Blues 13 (Jamison Gibson-Park try; Baden Kerr conversion, 2 penalties). HT: 19-10.