Glasgow extended their winning streak to six matches this season but it was nip and tuck for much of this nerve-shredding encounter and they had to jump off the canvas twice, with two tries in the final ten minutes giving them a narrow victory.
Overall, the game was a slow burner, only really coming to life in the final quarter.
Stand-off Finn Russell earned the first points of the match with an early penalty but the Cheetahs won most of the collisions and flooded the breakdown, thereby making it hard for Glasgow to get the front-foot ball that is meat and drink to Dave Rennie’s team.
It was fast and furious but the match was regularly interrupted by handling errors, caused partly by playing at pace at altitude and partly by the physical presence of the men in orange.
Some of Glasgow’s decision making was brainless but Ruaridh Jackson, playing at full-back, made several key contributions. Callum Gibbins scored two of Glasgow’s four tries and, as usual, Russell was at the heart of everything.
Glasgow’s woes started at the set piece, where their scrum was shunted backwards. The lineout was much worse, with four of Fraser Brown’s opening five throws wayward. He was replaced at half-time by George Turner, who promptly overcooked his first throw and, overall, the team missed 16 tackles while conceding 14 penalties.
The Cheetahs play the same high-tempo style as Glasgow and the opening try was typical. Scrum-half Tian Meyer caught the Warriors on the hop with a quick tap penalty and, when the ball was spread wide to the right, full-back Sergeal Peterson looped Rosco Specman before sprinting up the touchline to dive over in the corner.
Glasgow only really worked their way into contention around the half-hour mark, when they finally held on to the ball inside the Cheetahs half. Following a kick to the corner and umpteen pick and drives Gibbins forced his way right through the middle of a ruck to score under the sticks.
With a newfound spring in their step, Glasgow enjoyed the better of the final ten minutes, looking to break the 10-10 deadlock. However, it was the home side who scored again, just 20 seconds before the half-time hooter.
Stand-off Ernst Stapelberg stole Glasgow ball at a breakdown then Specman collected his own kick ahead and beat Nick Grigg to the corner flag for a well-taken solo score.
Glasgow were trailing 17-10 as they took the field for the second half and Sam Johnson had a chance to level things but, with the line begging, guddled the ball forward as he went to collect Jackson’s kick ahead.
The full-back had already made one important defensive contribution in the first half and Jackson made a vital interception of a scoring pass no more than five metres from his own try line after a suicidal pass from Turner gifted possession to the Cheetahs.
Jackson anticipated Peterson’s pass and made an 80-metres dash up the right flank before being tackled. Russell was on hand to keep the move alive so, when Gibbins arrived, all that was left for the exhausted flanker to do was pick up the ball and jog around the ruck to score.
The match continued to ebb and flow and Stapelberg kicked his second and third penalties of the night to edge his side six points head as the match entered the final 15 minutes.
Glasgow needed a try and they came up with an absolute humdinger. Russell chipped and Jackson collected from what looked suspiciously like an offside position. He fed Henry Pyrgos, who swapped passes with Niko Matawalu before scoring under the posts.
The one-point lead, thanks to Russell’s conversion, never looked enough and when D’arcy Rae was held on the wrong side of a ruck Stapelberg made no mistake with the penalty to regain the lead.
Glasgow needed another score and this one came from replacement Rob Harley three minutes from time. Johnson made the initial break and Russell’s cross-field kick sat up nicely for the flanker on the right touchline. “We found a way to win tonight,” said Rennie afterwards. I thought the guys showed really good composure at the end to get the try.”
On the South African experience, the Glasgow head coach added: “I thought we defended really well. We’re fit and we’ll be better for the experience of playing at altitude.”