Disciplined Connacht stay in hunt after second victory in South Africa
Cheetahs 17 Connacht 21
This was almost the perfect two-game tour of South Africa for Connacht and they head home for a tilt at the Challenge Cup with two wins, nine points and third place in Conference A.
The bonus-point win came in game one against Isuzu Southern Kings, but this victory over Cheetahs in Bloemfontein was far harder earned. In March, Connacht were denied a win at the same venue thanks to Niel Marais's late penalty, and this game looked set for a similar finale as Cheetahs attacked. But Connacht's defence and discipline stayed solid, Jarrad Butler forced a penalty at the breakdown and the win was sealed.
This game was played in more than 30-degree heat throughout and, understandably, Connacht struggled with the conditions at times, but tries from Tom Farrell and Gavin Thornbury inside the first half-hour gave them a significant cushion.
David Horwitz added two penalties after his arrival, and despite Shaun Venter's late try, Connacht were not to be denied this time.
Afterwards, Connacht coach Andy Friend apologised for putting his team's supporters through the wringer in the closing stages, but with a sixth win of the season in the bag he was delighted.
"What a great win. It wasn't the prettiest, but we came over here with the goal of winning two games and we've done that," said Friend.
"We kept everyone on the edge of their seats and we're sorry for doing that to you, but we got the nine points and we're happy with that.
"When you come into the competition you've got to be thinking that you want to make the quarter-finals.
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"Before coming to South Africa we said that if we lose both games we are dead. If we win one game, we're hanging on, and if we win both games we're definitely in the hunt.
"We can sit here now and be thankful that we won both games, but it doesn't mean that we are there yet. It just means that we are still in the hunt."
As well as the two wins the Connacht management will be over the moon with their team's general improvement.
Discipline had been a massive issue for the province early in the season as they conceded 75 penalties in a shocking run of six league games, but over the 160 minutes in South Africa they only conceded just 12 in total.
They won 29 of their 30 lineouts, 21 of their 23 scrums and only lost two of their 149 rucks. It was an efficient, impressive tour.
Farrell's try came off the top of a lineout after six minutes when his strong hand-off and sidestep got him to the line from near halfway. After 29 minutes Thornbury popped up at the last second to score at the back of a rolling maul.
Jack Carty was on target with his first two kicks at goal, a conversion and penalty, while the good work of Butler and Robin Copeland at the breakdown and a strong defensive showing put them 15-0 ahead.
In the baking heat Connacht faded before the break though, and Malcolm Jaer and Joseph Dweba tries made it 15-10 at the break, but Connacht were stronger after the restart and closed out the game, albeit with a small shock along the way, but this time they held solid.
Connacht next face Perpignan twice in the Challenge Cup, before interprovincial games with Leinster, Ulster and Munster, three games that will go a long way to defining their league season.
CHEETAHS - M Jaer; R Smith, W Small-Smith, B Janse van Rensburg (T Schoeman 38), D Adonis (R Paige 65); L Fouche, S Venter (C); O Nche (C Marais 60), J Dweba, E de Jager (J Coetzee 30); S Manjezi (J Basson 52), JP du Preez; J Pokomela (D Maartens 52), A Nonkontwana, G Olivier.
CONNACHT - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun (C Kelleher 33), K Godwin, T Farrell, M Healy; J Carty (D Horwitz 51), C Blade (J Mitchell 73); D Buckley (P McCabe 66), T McCartney (S Delahunt 54), C Carey (D Robertson-McCoy h-t); U Dillane, G Thornbury (J Cannon 66); P Boyle, J Butler (C), R Copeland (C Fainga'a 54).
REF - D Jones (WRU)