The visitors won the try-count 3-1 in a scrappy affair to make it three from three and move to the top of the table at the expense of the Vodacom Bulls, who have a bye this weekend.
Humidity ruled out an enterprising encounter, with the visitors in particular guilty of coughing up the ball on several occasions. That said, both coaches would be disappointed by their charges’ sub-standard performances.
The decorated duo of Frans Steyn and skipper Ruan Pienaar played pivotal roles in winning the kicking battle, Steyn carving out both of the Free Staters’ first-half tries and landing a late three-pointer, while Pienaar contributed 10 points off the tee.
Hawies Fourie’s men shot themselves in the foot with basic errors and indiscipline, conceding 11 penalties in the first half alone, which saw Eddie Fouché kick four penalty goals to cut the Toyota Cheetahs’ lead to 15-12 at half-time.
The Lowvelders had ascendency in the set pieces but lacked strike power, eventually scoring through Eduan Swart. They were also unable to stop the Toyota Cheetahs’ driving maul, which earned the visitors two of their three tries.
The Airlink Pumas took the fight to the visitors immediately, winning a maul turnover from the kick-off and a penalty from the ensuing scrum, with Fouché on the money to draw first blood.
Pienaar leveled the scores right away with a long-range penalty goal after Shane Kirkwood had been pinged for a no-arms tackle. The hosts backed their driving maul as they turned down two kickable penalties but came away empty handed from their early visit to the attacking 22.
An exceptional penalty kick into touch by Steyn put the Toyota Cheetahs in prime position, where their dominant driving maul came into play and resulted in Gideon van der Merwe scoring the opening try in the 13th minute, which went unconverted.
Steyn’s boot produced another try five minutes later, a perfectly weighted grubber off the left foot staying in field. Miscommunication between Devon Williams and Jade Stighling allowed Rosko Specman to snap it up on the second take and pop the ball to Clayton Blommetjies for a simple walk-in. Pienaar this time added the conversion to put the Toyota Cheetahs up by 15-3.
The Airlink Pumas regrouped and replied with back-to-back Fouché penalty goals to reduce the deficit to six and when Blommetjies’ restart went out on the full, there was a sense that the momentum had shifted into the home team’s favour near the 30-minute mark.
However, Steyn pinned them back in their 22 where the Toyota Cheetahs set up camp for several minutes only for poor handling to derail their efforts. The Airlink Pumas flexed their muscles in the set pieces, first in the scrum and then in the lineout, to secure another shot at goal and Fouché nailed the long-range effort.
That meant the sides went into the sheds with the Toyota Cheetahs holding a slender three-point lead, however, it was the Airlink Pumas who had their tails up after having dominated the final 10 minutes of the opening stanza.
The Free Staters came out with renewed hunger and reclaimed control with another well-worked maul try, this time Louis van der Westhuizen flopping over. Pienaar was successful with his conversion attempt to take the lead out to 10 after 46 minutes.
However, the Toyota Cheetahs’ disciplinary problems persisted and after a barnstorming run from captain Willie Engelbrecht inspired his troops, the Airlink Pumas finally breached the line and scored a maul try of their own through Swart. Fouché’s first miss of the afternoon made it 22-17.
A really scrappy period ended with Pienaar restoring a two-score buffer with a second penalty goal in the 62nd minute, which brought the clock into prominence for the first time.
Jimmy Stonehouse’s charges pressed and threatened to score only for their fire to be extinguished for the time being by a vital breakdown penalty from Marnus van der Merwe inside his 22 with nine minutes remaining.
The Toyota Cheetahs had a few opportunities to secure the four-try bonus point but ultimately settled for the win with Steyn adding a vintage long-range three-pointer.
Airlink Pumas 17 (12) – Try: Eduan Swart. Penalty goals: Eddie Fouché (4).
Toyota Cheetahs 28 (15) – Tries: Gideon van der Merwe, Clayton Blommetjies, Louis van der Westhuizen. Conversions: Ruan Pienaar (2). Penalty goals: Pienaar (2), Frans Steyn.