Paarl — Free State claimed a hard-fought 38-21 victory over the Blue Bulls in their first Craven Week game on Tuesday.
A Western Province XV, the Valke, Boland and KwaZulu-Natal also won their opening encounters by big margins on day two at Paarl Boys’ High.
Free State selected a 23-man squad loaded with players from the unbeaten Grey College and were deemed to be one of the tournament favourites along with hosts Western Province and the Golden Lions, the unofficial 2017 champions.
The Bloemfontein-based team had to dig deep to see off their Pretoria rivals, who owned the first 35-minute half thanks to a rampant pack that dominated the scrums and breakdowns.
The Bulls made a fast start to the game and were 10-0 up in as many minutes with a penalty from flyhalf Regard Roets and a try by scrumhalf Bernard van der Linde that Roets converted.
Free State were not in it at that stage and were poor in almost every department.
It came as a bit of a surprise when they did finally put points on the board in the 30th minute via a goaled try dotted down by fullback Richard Kriel.
But the Bulls hit back soon afterwards as Roets broke through the defences and set up SA Schools centre Diego Appollis for the easy touchdown, making it 15-7 at the break.
Some stern words must have been spoken to the Free State players by the coaching staff because they came out firing after the restart.
The Bulls could only add another six points to their tally as they fell away badly in the face of an aggressive onslaught from an opponent now in rampant form.
Free State scored five unanswered tries with consummate ease, with Kriel starting the fight-back with his brace.
It was a second-half effort of sheer class from the forwards and backs that makes Free State serious contenders for a place in the final game on Saturday. They would have to win their next game on Thursday, possibly against KwaZulu-Natal, who tamed a gallant South Western Districts team 46-28 in the penultimate game of the day.
Western Province XV started the proceedings with a 57-15 victory over the Golden Lions before the Valke smashed the Leopards 63-24.
Boland came out next and ran in 11 tries to hammer the Griquas 61-14.
Wednesday’s big game will be the last one between Western Province and the Golden Lions. Both sides won their opening games comfortably.