Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Cheetahs, perhaps with just a hint of a Super Rugby survival threat beginning to prey on their minds, are clearly determined to hit the 2012 conference trail running.
That much seemed apparent in their pre-season match against the Stormers on a sun-soaked Newlands evening on Saturday, with Naka Drotske’s charges presumably well chuffed about prevailing 22-14 before a crowd of almost 11 000.
In many respects it was a “both teams win” sort of outing, nevertheless, as the hosts, last season’s best South African team in the competition, put out a starting XV considerably more second-string in nature than the Cheetahs combination yet hung in there quite pleasingly for the lion’s share of the game.
Of Saturday’s Stormers side, only captain Schalk Burger, who played for about 70 minutes with typical ruggedness and gusto, is absolutely guaranteed to be a first-choice when the Hurricanes come to town in three weeks for the opening fixture of the season-proper.
So the fact that it was a largely ding-dong affair until four minutes from the last siren -- when substitute flyhalf Sias Ebersohn landed a penalty to take the gap between the teams to eight points for the first time -- meant the hosts’ management could mostly take positive elements from the exercise.
Certainly there are heaps of Stormers greenhorns, across the park, who look as though they may well blossom if pitted alongside some wise old heads in Super Rugby, even if they would understandably not quite be ready yet as a mass youthful entity to knock over the bigger ‘uns in the competition.
For the Cheetahs, meanwhile, this was a heartening display, considering that with the Southern Kings muscling into the picture next season, six South African teams may suddenly be scrapping for only five berths if SANZAR stubbornly refuses to expand further the 15-team set-up.
Probably unjustly, the ever-spirited central franchise may become an endangered species, or have to pally up awkwardly to the Lions for a two-in-one combo once more.
But if they are defiant in their quest to remain a credible standalone force, this was a good way to demonstrate it.
They had an edge in good real estate, and made a vital nuisance of themselves on the opposition throw at the lineouts, where Izak van der Westhuizen was prominent as a poacher.
The encounter was by no means a classic, although you do not expect that sort of phenomenon in the sweaty first week of February and from a defensive organisation point of view the Cheetahs, especially, looked resolute and competent.
You sense increasingly that the Stormers will be trying to put the ball through hands more prolifically than they did last year, even from long-range positions, so the fact that they struggled to manufacture high-tempo overlaps or explosive incursions off pop passes was a tribute to the visitors’ tenacity and awareness in tackle situations.
There was one try apiece, with the critical difference being the dynamite-laden boot of Cheetahs No 10 Johan Goosen, who accounted for 14 points through three penalties, a dropped goal and the conversion of Rocco Jansen’s touchdown.
He is an incredibly talented youngster, even if sometimes you feel he puts a tad too much faith in his ability to kick the leather off the ball out of his hand.
Goosen slightly overdid an often misdirected up-and-under, in situations where a crisp pass to his three-quarters appeared a wiser course of action, but these are simply rough edges you would expect from a customer starting just his second season at first-class level.
The fixture had a stop-start characteristic, despite both teams’ best intentions for positivity, with Craig Joubert frequently penalising the Stormers at the breakdown.
Sadly this was yet another modern rugby match, too, where lovers of a good scrummaging contest would have left frustrated and disillusioned: there were engagement offences aplenty, and in the rare instances where we did get a stage further than that, invariably a front row collapse would spoil the spectacle anyway.
This phase is a shambles, pretty much worldwide, and needs urgent remedial action.
On the whole, Stormers coach Allister Coetzee is unlikely to lose too much sleep over this little hiccup: his extended squad have had three satisfactory gallops now, winning two of them, and with essential, gnarly forward components like Andries Bekker and Duane Vermeulen about to come out of injury-enforced hibernation, some of Saturday’s little gremlins ought to quickly be ironed out anyway ...
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