PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa (Reuters) - The Southern Kings and the Cheetahs ended their stay in Super Rugby with the latter providing a late rally to secure a 21-20 victory at a festive Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Friday.
The duo have been cut from the Southern Hemisphere club championship in 2018, but although there has been no official word, both have hinted they will be part of the Pro 12 competition in Europe that starts in September.
Far from being a sombre occasion, a sizeable crowd turned out for the final Super Rugby match at the venue, and there was a party atmosphere that was only dampened when Cheetahs flyhalf Niel Marais struck a penalty six minutes from time to hand the visitors victory.
It was tough on the hosts, who had led 20-6 with 12 minutes remaining after tries from wingers Makazole Mapimpi and Wandie Mjekevu, to go with a score for giant lock Lubabalo Mtyanda.
But the Cheetahs fought back, and two tries in as many minutes from centre Clinton Swart and winger Raymond Rhule brought them to within two points, before Marais’ late penalty won the day.
The Kings still performed a lap of honour and were well received by fans after what has been their best season in Super Rugby with six wins from 15 games.
“We fought hard, we went ahead and were comfortable, but I think our discipline let us down,” Kings captain Lionel Cronje said in a post-match interview.
”No-one can take away what we have accomplished this year and I‘m just really proud of the crowd that came out to support us.
“It’s been a phenomenal season for us and we played a positive brand of rugby. It’s the best season we have had as the Kings, so I guess it’s a fitting way to end off.”
His Cheetahs counterpart Francois Venter perhaps said more than he should, though it is the worst kept secret in rugby that his side at least will be unveiled for the Pro 12 competition that starts in September.
“We see it as a great opportunity, it’s going to come with different challenges,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a lot like tonight with the (wet) conditions. Everybody is excited to go see how it is there.”
Far from sadness at their exit from Super Rugby, the smiles at the end of the game from both sets of players suggest they, at least, are looking forward to what lies ahead.
Reporting By Nick Said; Editing by Hugh Lawson