Having not played since the 45-26 loss to the selfsame Scarlets in Parma in mid-December, the Free Staters were up against it and their task was made all the more challenging by the injury-enforced absence of Springbok duo Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn.
The Welsh region, who won two of their three Vodacom United Rugby Championship games since their victory over the Toyota Cheetahs, didn’t look much sharper in what was a scrappy first half but did score the only try to lead 10-3 at halftime.
Hawies Fourie’s men took the lead with a double strike after the break before the pendulum swung back in the hosts’ favour in the 64th minute and they dominated territory and possession for most of the tense finale.
The Toyota Cheetahs never gave up fighting, defending valiantly, counter-rucking vigorously and winning scraps at the breakdown to stay in the hunt, but the bluntness on attack that hampered them all evening and late handling errors in the rain left them unable to conjure up something special to snatch victory.
The hard-fought win saw the Scarlets solidify their place at the top of Pool B and leaves the Toyota Cheetahs, who started their campaign with a 21-16 away win over Section Paloise, among the mid-table sides who’ll be in a desperate playoff scramble in the final round of the pool stage next weekend.
Vastly experienced Scarlets fullback Leigh Halfpenny opened the scoring after a stop-start first 10 minutes, the visitors caught offside from a charge-down.
As the pace quickened, the Toyota Cheetahs started to slip tackles and concede penalties in quick succession. It was good vision and execution that earned the Scarlets their first try. Rhys Patchell grubbering into space in the left-hand corner for Steff Evans to snap up and score. Halfpenny’s conversion made it 10-0 after 24 minutes.
After two fruitless trips into the 22, Victor Sekekete instructed Siya Masuku to go for goal when the Toyota Cheetahs were awarded a penalty 40 metres out and the flyhalf made no mistake to put them on the board on the half-hour mark.
Smelling a chance to level the scores before halftime, Masuku set up a 5m lineout after Schalk Ferreira had won a textbook breakdown penalty. Jeandre Rudolph went close before being bundled into touch from the driving maul but the Toyota Cheetahs had a second bite at the cherry with referee Hollie Davidson having played advantage.
Louis van der Westhuizen went long with his next throw-in, which resulted in Carwyn Tuipulotu being yellow-carded for taking Siba Qoma out in the air. With a man advantage in the pack, the visitors opted for a scrum, however, Scarlets scrumhalf Dane Blacker picked opposite number Rewan Kruger’s pocket at the base and the hosts hacked the ball into touch to bring the first half to an end.
The Toyota Cheetahs worked their way right back into the red zone after the interval and cashed in with their driving maul, Van der Westhuizen flopping over and Masuku making it all square with his conversion.
A strong surge by replacement flank Daniel Maartens put the Free Staters on the front foot from another lineout and Daniel Kasende streaked in like a hot knife through butter to put them in the lead for the first time in the 52nd minute.
It was short-lived as the Scarlets struck back immediately, brilliant hands by the backs seeing Johnny McNicholl finish in the corner for a seven-pointer to level the scores again.
With 16 minutes left on the clock, Halfpenny nudged the hosts back in front with a second penalty goal, Rudolph pinged for not rolling away, and it proved enough for the win as the home side held on.
Scarlets 20 (10) – Tries: Steff Evans, Johnny McNicholl. Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny (2). Penalty goals: Leigh Halfpenny (2).
Toyota Cheetahs 17 (3) – Tries: Louis van der Westhuizen, Daniel Kasende. Conversions: Siya Masuku (2). Penalty goal: Masuku.