If you are not a Cheetah supporter, it is very likely that they are your second favourite team, even if it’s merely because of their entertaining style of play. Never before has there been a greater air of hope surrounding the team from the Free State.
The Cheetahs have become a vastly improved outfit over the last couple of years and have already proven that they have the ability to win on the road. Sadly, though, they have never been financially strong enough to retain their star players, but I am happy to report that, for once, they will be able to enter the competition with more depth than the previous season.
Sarel Pretorius is back where he belongs. Super Sarel didn’t have such a super season at the Waratahs and after just one season down under, he decided to return to his roots, and what a welcome return it is.
More good news is that South Africa’s new wonder child Johan Goosen and powerhouse prop Coenie Oosthuizen have both recovered from the injuries they picked up on duty for the Springboks. Goosen still has some trouble with a pesky left heel, but word from the camp is that he’ll be right and ready for the opening round. Heinrich Brussow’s recovery is moving along on schedule and he should be back in the team anywhere between Rounds 1 and 3.
They’ve lost a few players to the Kings (Andries Strauss), the Bulls (Marcel van der Merwe was “swapped” for prop Rossouw de Klerk), the Force (Sias Ebersohn) and some opting to move abroad (Ashley Johnson, WP Nel, George Earle and Izak van der Westhuizen). The losses in the tight five are a bit of a concern, but with the Free State being the breeding grounds for front rowers and prospects of new talent from Boland and Griquas, all bases should be covered. Couple that with the return of Oosthuizen and Brussow and the leadership of Adriaan Strauss and you might just have a pack that will stand their ground.
Showing their stealth up front and dominating the set phases will be very important and if the Cheetahs manage to be more competitive in the tight exchanges, it could well be a turning point for them this season.
The backline, however, is a different story altogether. The Cheetahs have much more depth between 9 and 15 than they have amongst the forwards. Willie le Roux’s creativity versus Hennie Daniller’s stability; speedsters like Raymond Rhule, Rocco Jansen, Cameron Jacobs; strong centres in JP Nel and young Joubert Engelbrecht or guys like Johann Sadie and Robert Ebersohn with offloading skills and nifty footwork. Add to that impressive options to control play – Johan Goosen, Francois Brummer and Elgar Watts. And last but not least, with Sarel Pretorius and Piet van Zyl vying for the number 9 jersey sparks could fly.
Warm-up game number one against the Lions was a very disappointing affair, but a week later a completely different team took the field to face the Stormers and what a turnaround it was. Not only did the Cheetahs manage to breach the formidable Stormers defense three times, but their third/fourth choice flyhalf was able to successfully convert from difficult angles. They showed some big match temperament to fight back after not being able to score a single point in the first half and in the end Hansie Greeff displayed a cool head when he slotted the winning penalty from within his own half after the hooter had gone.
Defense and accurate goal kicking have been the Cheetahs’ biggest weaknesses and I think we can all agree that it looks like they have made good progress in those areas. Their questionable depth in the squad will require the key players to stay fit and injury free, and if they can accomplish that, I reckon they have more than just an outside chance of reaching the play-offs.
I am willing to go out on a limb here, but I predict that the Cheetahs will surprise quite a few teams this year and force their way into a 6th place finish.
by Jackie Smit