Bloemfontein - Free State Cheetahs coach Franco Smith believes Thursday night’s crunch Currie Cup clash against the defending champions, the Golden Lions, will showcase “the future of South African rugby” and should not be missed.
Smith’s team are sitting pretty at the top of the log after beating the Sharks last weekend away from home but will have their credentials tested by a desperate Lions side that needs a win to take a step closer to a semifinal spot and a chance to defend the title they won last year.
Smith’s team has produced some enterprising rugby and has, as Lions coach Johan Ackermann pointed out, benefitted from the momentum and continuity they had coming off the Super Rugby season with mostly the same squad in tact for the domestic tournament.
But despite this they will know their credentials will be tested by a resurgent Lions team that swept aside Western Province with way too much ease last Friday night to remind the rest of the competition they certainly won’t be giving up their title without a fight.
Smith though, believes the Lions and Cheetahs are the flag bearers of the new direction in South African rugby and will want to produce a game that not only adds some positivity to the game and the tournament at a crucial stage, but will also want to entrench their philosophies on a competition where results reign supreme.
The Cheetahs have added a four-try bonus point in all but one of their games thus far, and have the biggest points differential of all the teams going into the final rounds of the competition. But despite the Lions lack of log points, their points differential is just two less than the Bloemfontein side, showing that both sides – once they get on a roll – can pull away from opposition quite easily.
“We are developing and I believe you have to score tries, and have a waterproof defence and then you will win all your games. It is important for us to get over the whitewash and to score tries to have that ability,” Smith explains.
“If you are looking at the two teams facing each other, we have scored the most tries in the competition so from a spectators point of view it can be a very exciting game.
“I believe this is the future of South African rugby and the way it is heading so hopefully on Thursday we get a lot of people coming through the gates to experience it and that it is an exhibition of what we can do for South Africa.”
Smith has brushed off talk of the team being under pressure for the game, saying the only pressure they have is what they put on themselves.
“It doesn’t matter where we are on the log, it matters more how we play than who we play. We are playing against the competition and against ourselves,” he added.
“We did the same in Super Rugby – although we didn’t win, we didn’t do badly. So many people stare at results but we measure ourselves on our own goals and we said we want to be a group that plays better every week. Winning is a major part of this. We want to do what we can well.”
“We have been playing under pressure for the whole season. Every game has its own pressure and the more you make of the pressure, the more pressure is there for you.
“It is human to do that, but for us we need to learn to perform under pressure. We put enough pressure on ourselves and we cut any other pressure out.
“I won’t say we are the underdogs or they are the favourites and put that unnecessary pressure on us. Even though the players have matured in the past 18 months and they don’t worry about things like that.
“I’m sure the Lions have their objectives and they know we have 24 points on the log and they have 17 – I know they know that. If they want to put pressure on themselves, they are a good team and the pressure normally comes from outside factors than from within. They are a mature coaching staff and they won’t put extra pressure on themselves.”
Either way the clash is a mouthwatering one that could well point the way to where the title goes this year. And a good chance for both coaches to measure themselves and their teams’ chances against quality opposition.
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