The Eastern Province Kings survived a close call in Wellington on Friday as they beat the Regent Boland Cavaliers 25-20 (half-time 15-7) in their Absa Currie Cup First Division opener on Friday.
It needed the late intervention of fullback SP Marais and the accurate boot of replacement flyhalf Wesley Dunlop, called off the bench in the final quarter, to win the match for the EP Kings, as the Boland Cavaliers dominated the second half.
The Kings' tactic of keeping Boland pinned in their own territory worked in the first half as they did not have the kicking game to relieve the pressure.
The Cavaliers were nowhere in the first quarter and Kings flyhalf George Whitehead was initially the star of the show as he scored the first 10 points.
His opposite number, Elgar Watts, struggled to kick the ball out and the Cavaliers lineout also seldom went as intended, giving the visitors great attacking platforms. Whitehead kicked a fifth-minute penalty and then, running off first phase, threw an outrageous dummy and strolled through for a try in the 13th minute, which he converted.
Boland finally made their way into Eastern Province territory in the 19th minute and were able to win a lineout, leading to a period of concerted pressure on the Kings' line. That led to a penalty, which scrumhalf Bolla Conradie took quickly and passed to fullback Jacquin Jansen, who went through a defender on his way to scoring.
Watts converted to close the gap to 7-10, but the home side were unable to produce any other points despite their second-quarter dominance.
The Kings weathered the storm until the 33rd minute when their backs were able to produce a slick breakout, leading to an infringement at the ruck by Boland. The penalty was kicked to touch and loose forward Cornell du Preez then scored from an impressive rolling maul.
Eastern Province deserved their 15-7 half-time lead but they were given an almighty wake-up call in the second half as they produced some lacklustre rugby, with an inventive Cavaliers side only too happy to capitalise.
In the antithesis of modern rugby thinking, Boland ran the second-half kickoff from their own 22 and, with the Kings suddenly shying away from physical confrontation at the collisions, the home side were able to carry the ball through 11 phases before Jansen blazed through the close-in defence for his second try.
The try was the product of wonderful handling and support play by the Cavaliers, and their ball-in-hand approach meant they were smouldering on attack during the second half.
It was never-say-die rugby at its best and loosehead prop Ashton Constant, normally a hooker but shifted to the side of the scrum in an emergency, was a prominent feature in the tight-loose as well as scrumming manfully against experienced New Zealand giant Clint Newland.
Constant did however loose his bind to present Whitehead with a 53rd-minute penalty, but the star of the first quarter became the villain of the piece as he missed that kick and another penalty two minutes later that was practically in front of the poles.
Watts, who had succeeded with both conversions, then put Boland into the lead (17-15) for the first time in the 65th minute with a penalty kick that bounced over off the crossbar.
But with 10 minutes to go, Marais finally stepped up into the game. Boland couldn't handle his booming kick downfield, turning over possession. Marais then made a break that set up a ruck close to the tryline, and the talented fullback then dived over the ruck to score the match-winning try.
Dunlop calmly slotted the conversion to put the visitors out of penalty reach (22-17), but there were nervous times ahead for the Kings as Boland came roaring back and once again looked dangerous on attack.
But replacement back Tiger Mangweni was on hand to support strong defence and steal the ball, allowing Eastern Province to go tearing back into Boland territory.
The Cavaliers would then go offsides, allowing Dunlop to kick a penalty to stretch the lead to 25-17.
The hooter had already gone when the Kings engaged early at a scrum and Boland were able to run the free-kick into the EP 22, winning a penalty which replacement flyhalf Ricardo Croy kicked to ensure they did not go away empty-handed, gaining a losing bonus point.
Regent Boland Cavaliers - Tries: Jacquin Jansen (2). Conversion: Elgar Watts (2). Penalties: Watts, Ricardo Croy.
Eastern Province Kings - Tries: George Whitehead, Cornell du Preez, SP Marais. Conversions: Whitehead, Wesley Dunlop. Penalties: Whitehead, Dunlop.