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Cheetahs: A puncher’s chance
Adriaan Strauss (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - The good news for the Cheetahs, contemplating their debut in the Super Rugby finals series on Sunday (08:10 SA time), is a slightly shorter and less intimidating trek abroad than might have been the case.
By tackling the Brumbies in a Canberra qualifier, rather than having to continue their aerial journey to New Zealand and face the in-form, seven-time champion Crusaders, Naka Drotske’s charges may well feel just a tad more confident about their chances of recording an upset and advancing to the semi-finals.
While rightly still underdogs, no doubt, in bookies’ minds, you do feel they have a puncher’s chance of victory at Canberra Stadium - particularly if they “have a go” in finest Free State attacking tradition - whereas Christchurch tends to be a stubbornly unrelenting graveyard for South African sides.
It’s worth remembering, after all, that SA conference wooden-spoonists the Kings earned a famous 28-28 draw in the Australian capital earlier in the 2013 campaign, so it not as though teams from our shores need to go there with any special dread.
While the Cheetahs have never won away to the Brumbies in four attempts since the first encounter in 2006, they have come close twice, losing 29-23 in 2008 and by a controversial 24-23 last time out in 2012.
On the latter occasion, Adriaan Strauss
and company led for the lion’s share of the fixture and were only undone by a fatal penalty conceded at a scrum (one of infuriatingly many awarded the Brumbies’ way by referee Keith Brown on the day) in the 81st minute - Christian Lealiifano did the necessary to make the critical difference on the scoreboard.
So to some extent the Cheetahs may be additionally motivated by a wish for justice, come Sunday.
They should also take heart from their gradually improving reputation as overseas travellers, once a serious Achilles’ heel for them.
This year saw them win a fabulous three times in their four assignments outside South Africa: following a first-up 45-3 walloping at the hands of the Chiefs, they went on to beat all of the Highlanders (36-19), Waratahs (27-26) and Force (19-10).
Having seen off other Australian challengers the Rebels (34-16) and Reds (27-13) in Bloemfontein, the Cheetahs can, in fact, achieve a particularly memorable clean sweep for the year over Aussie foes if they topple the Brumbies, who they did not meet in ordinary season.
On the negative side, however, they will be only too aware that a backlash can be expected from the hosts, only aided by their coaching reins being held by a certain Jake White
, who has still-intimate knowledge of South African systems and mindsets.
The Brumbies, frankly, were awful in their shock 21-15 loss to the Force in Perth on Saturday, which denied them an opportunity to claim a top-two spot on the overall table, even though Aussie conference success was already assured.
They just did not seem to be at the races mentally and made a series of elementary and sometimes rank juvenile errors.
Still, there were shades in it, ironically, of a similar performance by the Cheetahs not too long ago, when they went to Newlands and were all too comfortably dismantled by the Stormers 28-3.
Suitably chastened, the Cheetahs then grilled the Blues in a key Bloemfontein clash a week on - deep down, the men from the Free State will be all too aware that the Brumbies will push for a similar sort of resurrection in the qualifier match following their once-off ineptitude.
We will also only know on Sunday whether the Cheetahs’ bye weekend has been a help or hindrance; sometimes the week off can see a certain staleness creep into play when a team eventually resumes combat.
But steering clear of Christchurch remains a decent comfort for Drotske’s troops ... now can they cheekily cash in?*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing