ONLY seconds remained in Saturday evening’s PRO14 clash in the heart of South Africa as Connacht players stood under the posts no doubt mulling over all manner of things, but mostly just watching on helplessly as Neil Marais expertly slotted the kick that edged his side in front. It was a smash and grab job from the hosts, they had saved themselves right at the end.
Connacht were crestfallen on the final whistle as this was without doubt the most gut-wrenching finish to a game since Kieran Keane arrived as they had done more than enough to earn what would have been only the second away win by any side this season at the high altitude Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein. The Cheetahs got out of jail then, keeping their play-off hopes very much on track in their first ever season in the competition.
It was already an historic first ever fixture for the province in the southern Hemisphere and after dominating the second and third quarter of the contest where they outscored their opponents 25-6, Connacht looked on the verge of a victory that would have had its own little spot in the provincial annals. Yet a bad start and a shaky finish – where questionable refereeing calls only added to the frustration – left Keane and his side gutted at full time. A season of disappointments continues in this competition.
Giving any team a ten-point head start is almost always a pivotal error but considering the venue and the strength of opposition, Connacht’s start was almost unforgivable. Missed tackles and indiscipline gave the Cheetahs the platform but even then, the main error came at the breakdown as a combination of players went to sleep in the pillar positions and powerful number 8 Uzair Cassiem took full advantage, charging through a gap unopposed.
Kicking in high altitude must be an enjoyable experience for exponents of the art, Marais’ certainly demonstrated as much with an 87% strike rate over the day, including some long range belters, his tenth minute effort had his side 10-0 ahead in the contest with Connacht looking to be gasping for air after every series of play.
Full report in this week’s Connacht Tribune.