The Ford Pumas stymied the MTN Golden Lions' top-of-the-log ambitions and kept their own Vodacom Cup hopes alive as they beat their hosts 37-33 (half-time 17-20) at Coca-Cola Park in Johannesburg on Saturday.
The Lions often looked the better team and seemed to be pulling away from the visitors when their second try gave them a 20-10 lead with just three minutes of the first half remaining. But the Lions must have really resented the plucky Pumas' ability to bounce back and the men from Mpumalanga were quick to strike after kick-offs in particular.
The opening 10 minutes saw the Pumas and Lions score tit-for-tat tries with flank Jaco Bouwer scoring for the visitors after a fantastic rolling maul and lock Hendrik Roodt charging over for the Gautengers after a fine take at the back of the lineout by eighthman JJ Gagiano.
The tightly-contested tiff also featured excellent goal-kicking by Pumas fullback Coenie van Wyk, who succeeded with all seven of his shots at goal, and Lions flyhalf Guy Cronje, whose only miss from eight attempts came off the post and led to a Pumas try!
In the 14th minute, a powerful charge by flank Stephan de Wit put the Lions on the front foot, leading to a penalty by Cronje (10-7). A high tackle on the impressive De Wit five minutes later led to another Cronje penalty (13-7) and the Pumas, who had scored their seven points in the first five minutes, were finally back on the scoreboard with eight minutes left in the first half when the excellent direct running and support play of their forwards earned Van Wyk his first penalty (13-10).
The Lions were quick to put the Pumas back under pressure, however, their good ball-retention eventually leading to the defence cracking as fullback Garth April joined the line and centre Bradley Moolman was able to go over in the left corner. Cronje's good day with the boot was highlighted by his conversion from the touchline (20-10).
But the Lions spent the halftime break mourning a costly lapse in concentration as they failed to gather the kick-off, Pumas wing Deon Scholtz grabbing the ball and scooting over for a crucial try just befpre the interval (20-17).
Having battled gamely in their bright pink strips in the first half, the Pumas switched to grey in the second half and they were a new side. Ever quick to pounce on an opportunity, they took the lead four minutes after the break when a Cronje penalty attempt came back off the post and centre Tiaan Marx's pace caught the Lions unawares. The former Leopards and KZN representative sprinted all the way into the Lions' 22, Scholtz was stopped just short of the line, but the home side could not keep hooker Torsten van Jaarsveld from crashing over.
But after a strong run by Moolman, Pumas scrumhalf Shaun Venter did not show the necessary restraint at the ruck and Cronje's penalty closed the gap to just one point (23-24).
The Lions clawed their way back into the lead in the 55th minute courtesy of another Cronje penalty (26-24), but the Pumas pounced again, counter-attacking off an up-and-under and earning Van Wyk another penalty (27-26).
With 13 minutes remaining, and with options both left and right from a midfield scrum in Lions' territory, lock Rudi Matthee, always strong with ball in hand, made impressive ground before Bouwer reached over the ruck to score.
Van Wyk's conversion gave the Pumas a healthy 34-26 lead, but the visitors were soon singing a different tune as the Lions came swarming back on to attack.
Some out-of-sorts basics by the Pumas put them under pressure and wing Ruan Combrinck finned his way down the right touchline for a top-class try. Cronje's conversion was a formality and it was a one-point game (33-34) heading into the last 10 minutes.
But the Pumas once again showed that remarkable ability to strike back from the kick-off as they roared back into the Lions' 22 and Van Wyk kicked a penalty that was enough of a buffer.
Some admirable defence in the last five minutes ensured that the Pumas' victory was just that little bit more memorable.
MTN Golden Lions - Tries: Hendrik Roodt, Bradley Moolman, Ruan Combrinck. Conversions: Guy Cronje (3). Penalties: Cronje (4).
Ford Pumas - Tries: Jaco Bouwer (2), Deon Scholtz, Torsten van Jaarsveld. Conversions: Coenie van Wyk (4). Penalties: Van Wyk (3).