Cheetahs To Pull A Rabbit From The Hat?
Louis van Schalkwyk
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The much anticipated Pro14 tournament reaches round 4 this weekend and from a South African perspective it’s a huge occasion, especially for the men from Bloemfontein.
The Free State Rugby Union (now known as the Cheetahs) has a long and rich history in SA Rugby since their birth in 1895. Even though their domestic Currie Cup success-record is rather sporadic (last time they lifted the trophy was in 2009) they have featured in seven finals since the inception of the modern era indicating a definite will to succeed.
Super Rugby has predominantly been a nightmare for the Cheetahs, with 2013 being their standout-year. The men from South Africa’s farmlands managed to amass an impressive 54 log points to place them 6th in the combined standings. The euphoria was short-lived though as they went down 15-13 to the Brumbies in Canberra after a hard-fought play-off match.
But the past is the past and for good reason. Consistently disappointing performances lead to their exit from the Southern Hemisphere tournament and it surely wasn’t due to lack of effort. The Cheetahs have always been the Tesco for larger unions, as year after year the Sharks, Bulls and Stormers would wave their check books to pick up several of the most talented players from the up-and-coming Cheetahs team, only to leave them depleted and scrambling to assemble a decent squad for the following year. Because make no mistake, the Free State-region produces a wealth of talent on a regular basis. Their only Achilles-heel is a long running lack of financial influx.
The PRO14 brings a new dawn to this battle-hardened Cheetahs side and this weekend they host one of the top clubs in the word in the form of Leinster. Coach Rory Duncan is all too aware of the dangers they pose as the men from Dublin made a quick meal of the Kings last week, and that without their regular captain and a number of internationals. All the while dealing with off the field issues that would put the cat among the pigeons for any side. Professionalism like that is well and truly priceless.
The Cheetahs are nothing if not resilient and they are fully invested in the opportunity handed to them in this tournament and will be keen to continue on their turning point after securing a vital win against Zebre. If they can up the tempo and get their running game going with flyers like Mapimpi, Petersen and Venter on the outside channels it could be devastating for the opposition come Saturday. The inclusion of Springbok flanker Teboho “Oupa” Mohoje could also aid their struggling defensive efforts tremendously and provide their forwards with a bit of extra momentum against a stellar Leinster-pack.
The Cheetahs have a manageable schedule going forward and if they can capitalise and gain some valuable log points this weekend they might just scrape through to the play-offs in their maiden PRO14 tournament, giving SA Rugby fans a much needed glimmer of joy in a rather tainted time of late.
It probably isn’t likely, but it is definitely possible.