Tour: Cheetahs must start well
Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Cheetahs are the first South African Super Rugby franchise to require their passports this season ... and will be targeting nothing less than victory from their Australasian tour opener on Friday.
It is the easiest of their four fixtures abroad on paper, against the Melbourne Rebels (10:40 SA time) and it could be pivotal in determining whether they have a decent trip or not overall.
Should they go down at AAMI Park, it could be tricky for them to make any further significant headway because they then play the Reds - off to a flying start after their away derby victory over the Brumbies - Hurricanes and Blues.
So a first-up triumph would be the ideal tonic, and send out a message at the same time that they are capable of being South Africa’s second-best trophy challengers again, and capable of making the playoffs cut for a second time in as many campaigns.
Certainly their own derby victory over the Bulls in a wet Bloemfontein on Friday night, coupled with the bilious opening display from the Stormers in Johannesburg, will just have reminded them of the possibility that they can be the best alternative to the Sharks for local conference supremacy and crack the top six overall.
Yes, the Lions have made a start probably beyond their own wildest dreams, and are already exhibiting a fantastic team ethic, but a good chance must still exist that they will lose some lustre as the season wears on and squad depth is greatly tested.
Frankly, if the Cheetahs go down in Melbourne it will seem an ominous little sign, even at this very early stage, that nobody but the Sharks in South African terms is a truly worthy title contender in 2014.
That is why it is so important that they hit the ground running on Friday, earning a second triumph on the trot to make up for that unexpected home setback at the hands of the Lions in round one.
The one big advantage they should take into the clash with the Rebels is combat sharpness: the home team had a first-round bye after a later start for the Aussie and New Zealand sides anyway, so this will be their first outing.
We all saw at Ellis Park how rusty the Stormers looked early on against the Lions - they were blitzed on the scoreboard in the first few minutes and simply never recovered - and the Capetonians do have at least the minor excuse from a woeful night that they were the lone SA side not to have had a game beneath their belts already.
Especially if Melbourne conditions suit their free-spirited game, the Cheetahs must set a high tempo and try to establish a rapid stranglehold on proceedings.
They are no longer the tour lightweights they once were, although on this occasion, unlike in 2013, they must try to start their mission more strongly - last year they were thumped 45-3 by the Chiefs, before incredibly bouncing back to win all three remaining games abroad (Highlanders, Waratahs and Force in that order).
Naka Drotské’s charges will do extremely well to match that achievement in 2014, and it will be even more unlikely if they are pushed onto the back foot from the first assignment.
Also in their favour for Friday, however, is their excellent history against the newest Aussie franchise: the Cheetahs have a three-from-three record, including the 2012 thriller away when replacement scrumhalf Piet van Zyl sprinted over for a game-breaking, 82nd-minute try in the corner to ensure a 33-26 win.These are all the results between the sides:
2013: Cheetahs 34 Rebels 16
2012: Rebels 26 Cheetahs 33
2011: Cheetahs 41 Rebels 21*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing