The Eastern Province Kings overcame a slow start to run out deserved 36-22 (halftime 23-10) winners in their Vodacom Cup match against the Free State Cheetahs played at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Friday night.
Victory for the Kings, their third in four outings, takes them to second on the South section log behind the Sharks XV. For Free State, a third loss sees the men from Bloemfontein languishing in sixth place.
In a helter skelter match played in cold and wet conditions, it was the visitors who drew first blood in the 10th minute when veteran winger Philip Burger scored a good individual try.
Burger picked up from the back of a ruck near the Cheetahs’ 22, broke blind down the left-hand touchline, toe-hacked ahead and then dived on the bobbing ball after the EP cover defence could not contain the ensuing goal-line scramble.
Kings centre Scott van Breda succeeded with a penalty after 15 minutes before livewire flanker Boetie Britz, the former Maties forager, cut the deficit to just two points when he flopped over following a driving maul the Kings set up from a lineout 25 metres out.
The Cheetahs had moments before opened up a 10-3 lead when Smit slotted an audacious drop goal but the advantage did not last long.
Winger Andile Witbooi then put the home side ahead when he took a scoring pass from flyhalf Shane Gates, who had launched a daring counter-attack from turnover ball that saw the Kings outside half shrug off a number of Cheetahs defenders on a fearless run upfield.
Van Breda opened a six-point lead when he banged over a second penalty in the 36th minute, before rampaging eighthman Jacques Engelbrecht showed power and fine footwork to thread his way through the Cheetahs’ defence from a standing ruck 22 metres out.
Oelschig stretched the lead to 16 points after 46 minutes with a second penalty and the home team, far from resting on their sizeable advantage, turned the screw further through their abrasive forwards.
But they couldn’t convert the superiority into points, giving Free State a sniff when, against the run of play, burly prop Marcel van der Merwe powered over from close range on the hour for Smit to convert.
But Oelschig’s boot widened the gap once more with 18 minutes left, before Witbooi pounced on a slip in defence by replacement Marco Mason to run in unopposed for the bonus-point try that sealed the win.
EP Kings 36 – Tries: Boetie Britz, Andile Witbooi (2), Jacques Engelbrecht. Conversions: Noel Oelschig (2). Penalties: Scott van Breda (2), Oelschig (2).
Free State 22 – Tries: Philip Burger, Marcel van der Merwe, Elandre Huggett. Conversions: Riaan Smit (2). Drop goal: Smit.