PRO14

Now scratchy Cheetahs run into Rassie

2017-09-02 12:15
Rassie Erasmus (Getty)

Cape Town – Different competition … but almost identical challenges for the Cheetahs.

That was all too apparent as the former staple presences in Super Rugby were soundly beaten 42-19 by Ulster in their keenly-awaited PRO14 debut in Belfast.

At least one thing seems reasonably certain: they will enliven the northern hemisphere-based tournament more often than not with their attacking style of play - and hopefully not also be too obvious easy-beats.

But in terms of matching the “bigger boys” in the competition to push for qualification for the advanced stages well into the 2018 year, that, arguably, already seems pretty doubtful.

Hardly aiding what always shaped as a taxing, all-overseas two-match start to their itinerary, the side from Bloemfontein now face another Irish traditional heavyweight club in the form of Munster next Saturday at Thomond Park.

Nought from two is a strong likelihood, thus, before they fly back to South Africa to play Zebre, the Italian outfit they should feel better capable of subduing at their 1,400m, rock-hard central interior headquarters.

Munster topped the overall table in last season’s then-PRO12, only falling short at the showpiece hurdle, where Scarlets – about to entertain other debutants the Kings – blitzed them 46-22 in the final at Aviva Stadium.

So the already slightly battered Cheetahs (remember, nearing what would normally be the business end of the SA season) are going to have to lift their game dramatically, especially in their stubbornly woeful area of defence, if they are to shock Munster.

Hardly helping their bid will be the fact that they square up not only to a gnarly playing squad, but also to their former mentor Rassie Erasmus, currently seeing out the few remaining months of 2017 as Munster’s highly-regarded director of rugby before he returns to high-powered national responsibilities in the land of his birth.

Erasmus is a famously educated, conscientious “unraveller” of opposition plans and, even if it has been several years since he bade farewell to Free State Stadium and packed up his famous rooftop disco lights, he still knows an awful lot about what makes the Cheetahs tick.

As Friday night only highlighted, the side in white and orange have not altered their offensive-minded philosophy very much, which made them well-received guests for their first fixture at Kingspan Stadium.

For good periods of the first half, the Cheetahs went toe to toe with Ulster for pace and ball-in-hand relish, making for an undoubtedly rousing spectacle and some rollicking tries by both sides until the scoreboard blew out a bit one-sidedly.

With blockbuster Springbok loose-forwards Marcell Coetzee and Jean Deysel illuminatingly to the fore for their northern employers, the home side’s superior all-round physicality gradually bore fruit as they began to punch major holes – particularly in the “middle” areas of play -- almost ad nauseam.

What the Cheetahs cannot afford to do, if at all possible, as they shift onward to the Munster challenge, is field as collectively brittle a back division as they did in height and kilograms terms against Ulster.

They found it hard to make really impactful tackles in swift, open play and all too often Ulster ball-carriers were too easily able to choose how and when to offload to team-mates as they found diminutive Cheetahs defenders clinging gamely to their ankles and lower legs.

The South African franchise will always want a few exciting whippets in their midst, and they can be lethally effective on the front foot, but they do need to strike a balance that includes one or two bulkier characters among the backs.

By deploying more customary fullback Clayton Blommetjies at flyhalf, they simply had another smallish player in a busy, demanding channel and the other problem, with his switch to No 10, was the glaring lack of a specialist place-kicker in their midst.

Particularly in the northern hemisphere, where wintry conditions (not far away?) create a much slower tempo to many games, gains are made in gradual yards and having someone who is proficient off the tee for penalty purposes is a must.

As well as having the wiles to Erasmus to deal with in a few days’ time (Munster whipped Benetton 34-3 in their own opener), the tourists could go head to head with several Irish internationals and another handful of fired-up “southern” figures like Jean Kleyn, Jaco Taute and the New Zealander at flyhalf Tyler Bleyendaal (ex-Crusaders).

Let’s not get too gloomy or cynical yet: when they entertain various European foes in the unforgiving Free State summer, the Cheetahs should come into their own to a healthier extent.

Maybe quite dramatically so.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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