The Western Stormers’ hopes of finishing Super 15 league runners-up and securing a home semi-final were dented on Saturday when they drew 19-19 with the Golden Lions in a Cape Town thriller.
Marnitz Boshoff converted a try by Malcolm Marx three minutes from time to tie the match. However, the stalemate eliminated the Lions from the title race, leaving conference winners the Stormers as the only South African contenders for the southern hemisphere championship.
Taking only two points from a match watched by a 34,000 crowd leaves the Stormers two points behind the New South Wales Waratahs in the race for second spot with one round left.
Finishing second on the combined standings secures a one-week break after the league season, followed by a home semi-final.
There is no break for the side coming third, though, as they host a playoff and, if successful, play away in the semi-finals.
The Waratahs appear to have the easier final league fixture, at home to struggling fellow Australians the Queensland Reds, while the Stormers travel to the Coastal Sharks for a South African derby.
The Stormers led the Lions three times only for the Johannesburg team to claw back, and the visitors exerted tremendous post-siren pressure before committing a knock-on a few meters short of the try line.
The home side played the last six minutes a man short after prop Steven Kitshoff was sin-binned.
“It was not the result we wanted,” said Stormers center Juan de Jongh, who took over as skipper when No. 8 Duane Vermeulen withdrew injured just before the kick-off.
Lions skipper and No. 8 Warren Whiteley said: “We have missed out on the playoffs, but I am so proud of my team for what they achieved this season.”
Stormers started as favorites, having won 11 of 12 previous Super Rugby clashes between the teams, and were first to score.
Kitshoff was held up just short of the line and scrumhalf Nic Groom grabbed the ball to score a try that flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis converted.
Lions scrumhalf Faf de Klerk darted over in the corner and flyhalf Elton Jantjies converted to restore equality.
A skip pass enabled Stormers winger Dillyn Leyds to score far out, but Kurt Coleman, who replaced the injured Catrakilis, failed to convert.
The teams were level again when Lions prop Schalk van der Merwe barged over, but the failure of Jantjies to convert meant the first half ended with each team on 12 points.
Fullback Cheslin Kolbe created the Stormers’ third try by gathering his chip and sending No. 8 Nizaam Carr away for a score that Coleman converted for a 19-12 advantage.
The Lions equalized again three minutes from time when hooker Marx scored a pushover try, which flyhalf Boshoff converted.
The visitors finished stronger, but could not snatch the victory that would have taken them to the top of the South African conference. They had to settle for seventh place.
WARATAHS 58, CHEETAHS 33
Fullback Israel Folau scored three of the nine tries that earned the New South Wales Waratahs a crushing victory at the Central Cheetahs on Saturday and a playoffs place.
Victory before a sparse crowd at a cold Free State Stadium in central South Africa placed the Australians second on the combined standings with one match left.
A bonus-point home victory next weekend at home to lowly compatriots the Queensland Reds would guarantee the defending champions top spot in the Australian conference and second or third on the combined standings.
Finishing second overall secures a home semi-final, while ending third means a home playoff (quarter-final).
The Cheetahs, playing under new coach and former Springbok Franco Smith for the first time, matched the visitors for much of the opening half.
They trailed 27-21 at halftime and were still only six points behind 20 minutes into the second half.
Folau then completed his hat-trick and Cheetahs center Rayno Benjamin was sin-binned for deliberately tripping the Wallaby as he scored. Waratahs flyhalf Bernard Foley converted for a 41-28 lead and the visitors added two converted tries for a convincing victory.
Folau (three), wingers Matt Carraro (two) and Taqele Naiyaravoro, flanker Michael Hooper, center Adam Ashley-Cooper and Foley scored tries for the Sydney side.
Foley succeeded with five of nine conversion attempts and also slotted a penalty for an 18-point contribution.
Centre Francois Venter (two), winger Cornal Hendricks (two) and flanker Boom Prinsloo were Cheetahs’ try-scorers.
Fullback Coenie van Wyk kicked three conversions and debutant flyhalf Niel Marais one.
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