Gavin Rich - SuperSport
Johannesburg - The Toyota Cheetahs made it a perfect ending to a strong weekend for a South African challenge that showed a pleasing lift in enterprise in Vodacom Super Rugby.
Before the Cheetahs saw Sunday action against the Rebels, the DHL Stormers and the Sharks had both shown improvements in their attacking game with good wins over strong overseas teams that admittedly were severely depleted, with the latter being particularly impressive with the way they successfully threw caution to the winds in a remarkable comeback against the champion Reds.
It was a weekend that proved that not only can South African teams beat overseas opposition, but they can also do it playing attractive rugby. No team deserved more credit though than the Cheetahs for the never say die attitude they displayed in clinching their first win of the season off the last move of the game in Melbourne.
With the scores locked on 26-all and thus faced with a situation where they stood to leave Australia with a share of the spoils, which would have been an achievement in itself considering their poor overseas record, you might have expected the Cheetahs to play defensively and wind down the clock when they found themselves pinned in their own half in the final minute.
But the Cheetahs had other ideas. Throughout the final 10 minutes their running and handling game had exposed gaps in the Rebels defence through which players such as reserve scrumhalf Piet van Zyl, big No 8 Allister Johnson, reserve centre Sias Eberhson and skipper Adriaan Strauss had surged only for the move to be halted at the last by desperate scramble defence.
The way the Cheetahs were stringing passes together was impressive, with the timing almost always being spot on and the angles of attack and the catching and ball skills quite superb. Had they been denied victory the Cheetahs, who had again squandered a sizeable advantage in the second half, would have considered themselves unlucky, but it was still brave of them to chase the win, which was achieved with an 80 metre try which was eventually sealed by Van Zyl’s pace into the corner.
The manner made up for last week’s cruel last minute defeat to the Brumbies in Canberra, where let’s face it, they were robbed by some poor refereeing. The Cheetahs now travel to Christchurch where they have the unenviable task of being the opposition when the Crusaders open their new stadium and play in their home city for the first time in over a year. But at least they now go there with some confidence.
And confidence is also something the Sharks will have after their rousing last 50 minutes against the Reds, where they turned around a 0-17 deficit by scoring 27 points to five in that period. What was particularly pleasing though was the way the Sharks kept attacking and kept running at the Reds even when the rain was pouring down. Like in Melbourne the next day, the Sharks proved that South African players are indeed capable of profiting from brave rugby.
They had of course been forced into adopting a policy of carrying the ball at their opponents by the catch-up situation they found themselves in after the Reds had started in a fashion that backed up their coach Ewen McKenzie’s promise that now would be the time they lift their game after a slow start to the competition.
Indeed, while the Reds lost for the first time this season they might not be too disappointed as in the opening 30 minutes they did show what they are capable of, and the loss of so many players to injury, which eventually saw them without both their goalkickers, played a part in the second half turn-around.
That said, the Sharks lost JP Pietersen just before kick-off to a quad injury and they lost Steven Sykes and Jannie du Plessis during the game. The manner in which both teams became so badly depleted – the Sharks also eventually lost their back-up tighthead Wiehahn Herbst, forcing the referee to order uncontested scrums - added a bizarreness to the game that should temper any temptation for South Africans to read too much into the result.
Yes, the Sharks did beat the champions, and they played well to do so, but by the time the second half arrived the Reds team hardly resembled the Reds team that won the competition, with scrumhalf Will Genia being forced to play flyhalf. Genia had been sublime in the first half and the Reds do play off their No 9, so this would have been a big disruption to them.
The same should be said about the result of the Newlands game on Friday. The Stormers confirmed their potential to again challenge for a semifinal spot with another awesome display from their pack, with the backs also getting into the act this time as the Cape team hit a noticeable upward thrust on their performance graph in comparison with their previous two matches.
Whereas against the Hurricanes and Sharks the Stormers relied heavily on the forwards, this time it was an allround effort, and it was a timely one too for they travel away for the first time this weekend to face the Lions before returning to Newlands for a derby against the Bulls that will provide their biggest test of the season so far.
The Blues were as depleted as the Sharks were in the previous match, something that Stormers skipper Jean de Villiers acknowledged after the game. The Blues were without eight first choice players, including five capped All Blacks, so while the Stormers did all that was asked of them, you do get the feeling much tougher obstacles loom in their future.