Do or die tour for Cheetahs
It was really encouraging to hear that both the Cheetahs and Sharks, despite having lost both of their opening Super Rugby encounters, are still upbeat about the rest of the season.
While Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske expressed confidence ahead of his team’s departure to Australasia, and Sharks coach John Plumtree wasn't overly worried after his team’s two losses ahead of their upcoming matches against the reigning Currie Cup (Lions, March 10) and Super Rugby champions (Reds, March 17), confidence doesn’t seem to be in short supply among the South African franchises.
While a positive approach is always a good thing, the Bulls exposed a vulnerable Cheetahs outfit during their demolition job last weekend. I have to confess, I tipped the Cheetahs to win what I thought was going to be a close match; I never expected them to capitulate in the way they did. Sure, the Bulls did score a couple of “soft tries” but the truth is they resulted from some pretty poor attacking ploys and lacklustre cover defence from the men in white.
Johan Goosen, the new wonder boy of Cheetah and South African rugby, was easily counteracted with deadly accurate and disciplined defence by the Bulls. In the process they completely shut down channel one and two as attacking options for the Cheetahs. The result was a largely ineffective Cheetahs running game and frustration at the inability of their ball carriers to cross the gain line.
The second factor that killed the Cheetahs' challenge was the disciplined Bulls tight five and the aggressive defensive approach, particularly by Jacques Potgieter. He was abrasive on the run, but especially in defence where he seemed to target Heinrich Brussow - with great success. He managed to get under the Springbok flank's skin and for the very first time Brussow seemed distracted by off the ball stuff and the Bulls benefited hugely from this.
I believe Brussow was lucky not to get a yellow card when he “attacked” Wynand Olivier during the latter’s altercation with another Cheetahs player after a tackle. Brussow wasn’t involved in the initial contact and started the brawl when he joined the altercation. In my estimation he should have been penalised with a yellow card at least.
I have always loved the way the Cheetahs play, especially the way they manage to lift the tempo of the game when it matters the most. However, on Saturday they lost the plot at crucial times and made unforced errors when under the slightest bit of pressure. The Bulls employed a simple strategy in beating the Cheetahs: neutralise wonder boy Goosen and dismantle the Brussow magic. They showed that if you are able to do this you'll be well on your way to victory. The Australians (Brumbies and Rebels) and New Zealanders (Crusaders and Hurricanes) who will all face the Cheetahs on their Australasian tour will be studying the Bulls' match DVD with that in mind.
Adrian Strauss is an impressive player and leader, but on Saturday I got the sense that he was perhaps trying a little too hard. He displayed a “pressured urgency” which rapidly spread to his players. I think everyone in Bloemfontein will breathe a huge sigh of relief when Juan Smith returns to the team - this is definitely what the Cheetahs need now.
Last year the Cheetahs surprised everyone with the character they showed in their overseas fixtures. They will fancy their chances against the Brumbies and Rebels, their first two matches on tour. If they can emerge victorious in those two matches, they will be well on their way to recovery.
However, these are difficult times with the team finishing last in the South African Conference facing potential relegation out of Super Rugby. They will also face former Springbok coach Jake White in their first tour fixture which will make it that much more difficult to outsmart the opposition as Jake knows the Cheetahs game all too well.
However, the men in white have been in similar positions before and they will know that if they can return to Bloemfontein with two away wins under their belt they will be well set for a very strong home run and with a much better chance of retaining their Super Rugby berth.
Gary Boshoff is a former SARU player and current Afrikaans rugby commentator on SuperSport.
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