Cheetahs flyhalf Riaan Smit hit the upright with a last-minute conversion attempt to hand the ACT Brumbies a 15-13 victory and a place in the Super XV semi-finals at a chilly Canberra Stadium yesterday.
Five penalties from center Christian Leali’ifano and scrumhalf Nic White proved just enough for the twice champions, who travel to Pretoria to play South Africa’s Bulls next weekend.
The Cheetahs played some great rugby and scored the only tries of their first-ever playoff match through center Johann Sadie early in the first half and replacement winger Ryno Benjamin at the death.
Smit could have extended the Cheetah’s fairy-tale season into 20 minutes of extra-time, but his kick from wide out on the left touchline came back off the near post.
Victory for the Brumbies means the Canterbury Crusaders now play defending champions the Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton, New Zealand, in the other semi-final on Saturday.
“You always worry when a South African guy’s having a kick because they are usually dead on the money,” relieved Brumbies skipper Ben Mowen said. “Fortunately for us it fell our way. That’s good to grab a win here, but we’re going to build now and try to run all the way through.”
A huge battle at the breakdown between George Smith and Heinrich Brussow was just one of several intriguing contests that ensured the tightest of matches, but ultimately three missed kicks from four attempts by Smit cost the Cheetahs victory.
The visitors took a 5-3 lead in the 16th minute when Willie le Roux’s flat pass allowed fellow winger Raymond Rhule to breach the Brumbies defense and he off-loaded to give center Sadie a clear run to the line.
Leali’ifano missed his second and third penalty attempts into a tricky wind, before nailing his fourth to put the Brumbies back in front 6-5 after half an hour, but they came up empty handed after a long period inside the Cheetahs’ 22 as halftime approached.
Smit’s first successful place-kick on this third attempt six minutes into the second half inched the visitors ahead, but home scrumhalf White steered a long-range penalty over three minutes later.
Leali’ifano then resumed kicking duties and slotted over two more three-pointers to give the Brumbies a seven-point cushion at 15-8 with 12 minutes remaining.
Desperate to keep their best season alive, the orange-shirted South Africans poured forward and laid siege to the home try-line, with replacement halfback Sarel Pretorius marshaling the attacks.
It was his pass that put Benjamin over in the corner with time running out to hand Smit the tough task of forcing extra-time.
“Very disappointing to lose tonight, but I’m very proud of the guys, we’ve had [a] much better season that we can build on in the future,” Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss said.
The Crusaders go into the weekend as hot favorites for an eighth title after demolishing the Queensland Reds 38-9 in the first playoff match on Saturday.