The Griffons, who won their first four matches to set the early pace in the competition, squandered a strong first-half showing and a 22-5 lead to lose their fourth successive game and leave themselves in danger of slipping out of the top four if the SWD Eagles beat the Border Bulldogs on Friday night.
The Valke’s victory was only sealed in the 82nd minute when replacement flyhalf Juan Kotze slotted a 38-metre penalty after Griffons flank Martin Sithole had been caught playing the ball in a ruck while on his knees. This had followed his knock-on which had given the visitors a scrum as normal time finished. This was a horrible ending for the hard-working Sithole, who had enjoyed a fine match before that.
The Valke made the first strike in the game when prop Nicky Engelbrecht went over in the third minute, but this was a false dawn for the Eastern Gautengers as the Griffons scored four tries in reply in the next half-hour.
Engelbrecht’s opposite number, Rudi Britz, was the first to have his say when he rumbled through some lacklustre defending to score, fullback Hansie Graaff having provided a lovely inside-ball to the front-rower.
Graaff was once again pulling the strings just two minutes later when another silky inside pass sent Sithole bursting through and the flank did well to find talismanic Griffons eighthman Nicky Steyn, who dotted down.
The men from the Goldfields were playing like millionaires and, midway through the first half, Steyn, Welkom’s own version of Samson, stormed through the midfield to score his second try.
Graaff was back in the limelight again with seven minutes to go before half-time as he dummied and then dabbed a lovely ball through for wing Reinhardt Erwee to claim and score the Griffons’ fourth try and first bonus point.
But from then on it was an uphill struggle for the Griffons. They produced plenty of flashy rugby, but too many passes slipped from their fingers and the Valke, who had looked like fish out of water in the northern Free State, capitalised on the mistakes.
Centre Thabang Molefe dropped a pass in the shadow of his own poles and, from the resulting scrum, replacement halfback Anrich Richter squirmed and slivered his way over the tryline.
But the home side were still calling the tune at half-time with a 22-10 lead.
But a top-class second half saw the Valke draw level, take the lead, lose the lead and then win the game at the death.
A dropped pass on attack by the Griffons allowed a counter-attack, centre Willie Odendaal racing away and finding fullback JW Bell, who threw a dummy out wide before winning a race to the line with opposite number Graaff.
Busy replacement wing Jaco Oosthuizen then rushed up to force a lineout from his pinpoint up-and-under and, even though the Valke lost their own throw, a sleepy scrumhalf meant they were able to regain possession. A series of big forward drives then took the Valke to under the poles, where they earned a penalty. Bell wasted no time in tapping and dashing over the line past some dazed defenders.
Flyhalf Karlo Aspeling kicked the easy conversion and the Valke were back level at 22-22.
The situation only became worse for the Griffons as Erwee was yellow-carded for holding a man back off the ball as the Valke roared back across the home side’s 22. The penalty was kicked to touch, the lineout won and, after some strong driving play, Richter sniped across the line for his second try.
The scores were level again, though, with 18 minutes remaining when the Griffons second row combined for a fine try – Joubert Horn broke straight through to put the Northern Free Staters on attack, Chris Ehlers muscling over for the try.
The Griffons reclaimed the lead in the 66th minute when Philip Burger, the former Cheetahs and SA Sevens speedster, burst through a gap and sent a lovely long pass out to Sithole, who bumped off a tackler before feeding replacement scrumhalf Oshwill Nortje, who sped away on the angle for the corner and the try.
Graaff’s angled conversion made the score 36-29, but the Valke used their powerful ball-carriers to bash their way back into the Griffons 22. They earned the penalty and Bell once again tapped and dashed to embarrass defenders who were admiring the countryside rather than guarding their tryline.
Kotze’s conversion tied the game up and then came the disappointing final minute for the Griffons, who are rapidly heading down the log after their wonderful start to the campaign.
The Griffons are facing a long, hard struggle if they are to reach the semi-finals now.
GRIFFONS – Tries: Rudi Britz, Nicky Steyn (2), Reinhardt Erwee, Chris Ehlers, Oshwill Nortje. Conversions: Tiaan van Wyk, Hansie Graaff (2).
VALKE – Tries: Nicky Engelbrecht, Anrich Richter (2), JW Bell (3). Conversions: Karlo Aspeling (2), Juan Kotze. Penalty: Kotze.