CAPE TOWN – First, the bad news for the Cheetahs and Bulls – stalwarts Ruan Pienaar and Gio Aplon are unlikely to feature in Super Rugby Unlocked again.
But the real good vibes for the Cheetahs that came out of Friday night’s 19-17 victory at the Free State Stadium was the immense character shown by Hawies Fourie’s team.
They have been kicked out of PRO Rugby, so they don’t know what their future looks like beyond the end of the Currie Cup in January. They also had a moment of silence on Friday for a former Cheetahs vice president, Cedric Carson, who passed away last week.
And after just 15 minutes into the match in Bloemfontein, they lost captain Pienaar to a serious-looking knee injury that could keep him out of action for at least the Super Rugby portion of the local season.
The veteran former Springbok halfback was taken out at a ruck by Bulls flank Marco van Staden as he tried to pick up the ball, and he was later seen on crutches and a heavily bandaged right leg.
There were no points on the board at the time, but it resulted in a few changes, with Tian Meyer coming on at scrumhalf and Junior Pokomela taking over the captaincy – Fourie adding that the former SA Under-20 star would be in charge for the rest of the season.
They managed to absorb some early pressure from the Bulls, and eventually built up a 19-9 lead in the second half, before surviving a late onslaught from the visitors, with reserve flyhalf Chris Smith missing a conversion that would’ve secured a draw.
“Injuries are unfortunately part of the game, and it was really bad to see that Ruan and Gio Aplon so early in the match had to go off the field on the medical golf cart. We are thinking of them and hope that it’s not so serious, as it’s a big blow,” coach Fourie said in the post-match press conference.
“But I must say that the whole team responded well, and everyone stayed cool and calm. Tian Meyer did a good job for the next 65 minutes, and Junior took over the captaincy and made good decisions.
“I think it was an unbelievable performance, if you think of all the negative things that happened to us and all the bad news that we received over the last three or four weeks. I felt that it was an unbelievable team effort, and I am very proud of my team.”
With regards to Aplon, Bulls director of rugby Jake White fears the worst. The fleet-footed fullback went on a dazzling run through the Cheetahs early on, but hurt his left knee ligaments in the process.
“It’s all speculation (at this stage), but he himself thinks he’s done his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). He’s never done it before, so he says he’s not quite sure. I don’t want to pre-empt anything, but he feels that it is his ACL. He was basically running and as he stepped, the outside of his knee went. So, hopefully it’s not, but if it is, I just hope he gets better,” White said.
The former Bok boss didn’t seem too displeased with his team’s performance on the night, even though his forwards were unable to impose themselves on the Cheetahs pack.
“I think we probably conceded too many penalties consecutively, and we let them get out of their half, and they basically got into our half by us making consecutive penalties. I’m quite proud of the way they came back, but the work-on for me is that we don’t concede so many penalties consecutively,” White said.
“I can’t doubt their character, I can’t doubt the fact that they came back. We were 13-3 down, and some sides would’ve given up. We carried on fighting, and had we got the conversion, it would’ve been a draw – and who knows, maybe at the end there, we get another penalty and win the game.”