The Kings had dominated the first 50 minutes of the match in impressive fashion, making a compelling argument that they are a team on the rise, as they built a formidable 27-9 lead.
But they then suffered a dramatic fade-out in the last half-hour that certainly leaves more questions than answers about their ability to perform on bigger stages than the Currie Cup B Section.
The Pumas, playing in front of their home crowd – which looked sparse in the massive Mbombela Stadium – produced a rousing, passionate comeback and it was the boot of Roos that ensured they came away with a share of the spoils.
Roos kicked with authority throughout, succeeding with all six of his shots at goal, including the conversion from the touchline after the final hooter that secured the draw.
The crucial try came after the Pumas had put the Kings defence through a thorough examination, but the visitors managed to turn over the ball. They then decided to take it up from their own tryline, but were adjudged to have been sealing off at the ruck, giving the home side a penalty, which they kicked to touch.
The Pumas set up the rolling maul, but the Kings defended that well, so the ball was spread left and then back right, where outside centre Tiaan Marx found the space to dash over in the corner for the try.
The Kings had dominated the opening exchanges and grabbed the opening try when lock and captain Darron Nell soared high at the back of the lineout, flank Thabo Mamojele bounced out of tackles in midfield to give the visitors front-foot ball, and flyhalf George Whitehead then timed the inside-pass perfectly for wing Marcello Sampson to use his pace and capitalise on the space created for him.
Whitehead’s conversion made it 7-0, but he then hacked a penalty wide, before the Pumas had their first points on the board in the 16th minute via a Roos penalty, that came after the home side were finally able to hang on to the ball through several phases.
But it was a case of just a temporary relief of pressure on the Mpumalanga side as the Kings showed super ball-retention, prop Jaco Engels and centre Tiger Mangweni making good ground, to earn a penalty for Whitehead (10-3).
The strong ball-carrying of the Pumas forwards earned Roos another penalty five minutes later (6-10), but the superb interplay of the Kings forwards and backs brought another try Eastern Province’s way five minutes before the break as lock David Bulbring surged on to an inside ball and scored their second try.
Whitehead converted and, even though Roos closed the gap to 9-17 with a penalty, it was obvious which team had the momentum going into the second half.
The Pumas were punished by another try soon after the break as they did not look after their ball going into a ruck and the Kings struck from the turnover, hooker Hannes Franklin rounding off an 11-phase counter-attack that once again featured forwards and backs.
Whitehead converted and then added a penalty five minutes later after the Eastern Province forwards hit the ball up well and forced a ruck infringement.
The Pumas were 9-27 down, but it’s often out of desperation that teams eventually find their mojo and the home side hit back in spectacular fashion.
Mpumalanga’s comeback started with a try to flank Renaldo Bothma from the rolling maul that has been so kind to the Pumas.
But where the Pumas were so impressive was in their ability to vary their game.
The next time they kicked a penalty to touch and lock Rudi Matthee won the ball, they shaped to set up the rolling maul but instead spread the ball wide. They went left first and then came back right, where captain and wing JW Jonker squeezed over in the corner, Roos’s excellent conversion putting the Pumas in touching distance at 23-27 down.
The Pumas were suddenly all over the Kings and where the visitors managed to avoid defeat was in a scrum close to their line when Engels produced a massive shove that won them a penalty against the feed. From the resulting lineout, Eastern Province took the ball through 14 phases and it was Whitehead who kicked the penalty to give them some breathing space at 30-23 up.
But it was the Pumas who had the final say through Marx and Roos.
The Pumas’ strength was in their tight five and their never-say-die spirit, and their calmness under pressure was impressive, possibly because they are used to life in the Absa Currie Cup Premier Division. Roos was also superb and, in the final movement that brought the try, he also gathered an awful pass that was flung at his feet.
The EP Kings will need to look into the reasons for their late fade, but they played some magnificent rugby to enliven the match. Their loose trio of Mamojele, Cornell du Preez and Wimpie van der Walt played superbly to provide a steady supply of good ball to their backs, who at times threatened to run riot.
Mangweni’s experience at inside centre also went a long way to getting the Kings backline running smoothly.
Ford Pumas – Tries: Renaldo Bothma, JW Jonker, Tiaan Marx. Conversions: JC Roos (3). Penalties: Roos (3).
EP Kings – Tries: Marcello Sampson, David Bulbring, Hannes Franklin. Conversions: George Whitehead (3). Penalties: Whitehead (3).