Cape Town – Let’s hit the nail smack on the head … the Free State Cheetahs, with just one obstacle left to negotiate, have had a standout Currie Cup.
It’s nine wins out of nine if you combine their flawless ordinary season with Saturday’s much-trumpeted 55-17 semi-final thrashing of 2015 champions the Golden Lions, who had an unusually rare, collective off-day for fluency and cohesion and also quite clearly missed the services of several leading lights plying their trade temporarily in Japan.
The Cheetahs are likely to have widespread status as favourites for this Saturday’s Bloemfontein showpiece (16:00), even if opponents the Blue Bulls will also feel they have a puncher’s chance.
Much of the post-match analysis from their semi revolved around how they had “out-Lioned” the men from Johannesburg with their up-tempo and creative playing style – the Cheetahs have long harboured that spirit anyway, but latest prosperity is also linked to renewed devotion to and structural integrity of their defence.
Their rise sounds like a positive statement for broader South African competitiveness in Super Rugby next year than we saw in 2016, when the Lions were runaway best side from our shores and advanced all the way to a commendable appearance in the Wellington final.
Or does it?
There is a grave danger of over-valuing the modern Currie Cup, given its ever-increasing elbowing into the shadows in “priority” terms, complete absence these days of best Springboks and the presence of several sore-thumb teams in the nether regions of the table.
From its still much loftier status of some eight to 10 years ago, the dogged old event has deteriorated into something not greatly better, by my book, than the soulless Vodacom Cup of yesteryear.
It has not entirely lost its relevance as a forum for blooding some of the young talent South Africa happily hasn’t ceased to produce, but that is rather savagely counter-balanced by the concession of quality – across the competition, not just Cheetahs – caused by what Schalk Burger has rightly described in recent interviews as the mass departure for abroad of “mid-career pros”.
You have to admire the way, under an astute and determined young coach in Franco Smith, in which the Cheetahs have dominated the present Currie Cup, through a combination of Young Turks and also some relatively humdrum – with respect – more established players who have bought into his ways and punched above their anticipated weight.
That said, the Free Staters don’t exactly ooze likely Springbok candidates over the course of the next few months … and yes, that is even said despite the national cause looking unusually threadbare.
There are better prospects of some Test infusions from their backline resources, with all of centre and captain Francois Venter and wings Sergeal Petersen and Raymond Rhule making stiffening claims and presumably under consideration, at very least, for the end-of-year tour.
But peruse the more “inside” berths (from flyhalf, right into the heart of their pack) of their Currie Cup team and you struggle to find names of players with Test credentials currently branded large on them.
The lone exception, perhaps, would be their highly promising loosehead prop Ox Nche, recently described with reverence by Bok World Cup 1995 tight five behemoth and SuperSport pundit Kobus Wiese as ‘n ware yster, although at 21 there is ample time yet for him to develop into a green-and-gold challenger.
But while on the subject of hot property Nche and a couple of others, what reason is there to assume the current Cheetahs will not fall prey, sooner rather than later, to the customary “poaching” assault on their ranks from the bigger, more cash-flush unions in the country?
Admittedly seven years is a relatively long time, but it is instructive to note nevertheless that the franchise have subsequently surrendered every single player from the squad which lost 36-24 to the Blue Bulls the last time they graced the Currie Cup final in 2009.
As an example of how vulnerable SA franchises are generally these days to loss of potentially stalwart characters to shores near and far, the Cheetahs have seen men like WP Nel qualify for Scotland, Ashley Johnson settle at Wasps, Heinrich Brussow go to Japan, and domestically Adriaan Strauss (Bulls), Lionel Mapoe (Lions) and Coenie Oosthuizen (Sharks) all switch loyalties to more traditionally powerful outfits.
And just how equipped are the present Cheetahs crop, really, to perk up their Super Rugby performance (four wins from 15 this year) in 2017?
I suspect only a reality check -- or the slightest chance of minor improvement at best -- in a year when they will face the more difficult task of playing New Zealand rather than Australian outfits in ordinary season.
The Cheetahs are a good-news story at a time when those are in short supply across domestic rugby.
At the unwanted risk of sounding like a killjoy, I am just not convinced yet of any lasting relevance, nor of any budding, all-conquering dynasty being on the brew in “Bloem”.
But they are dancing as fast as they can, and we need have no problem with that.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing