Cheetahs gunning for glory

    2014-02-11 20:28

    Bloemfontein - Their surprise rise in the Super Rugby ranks in 2013 has created expectations of the Cheetahs to prove their playoff berth was not merely a flash in the pan.

    While the Bloemfontein franchise always rode the wave of being potential giant killers they were never considered title contenders.

    Eight years since making their debut as a fully fledged Super Rugby franchise, the Cheetahs finally matured into a team able to challenge their more revered peers in 2013.

    Forever the darlings of Super Rugby because of their running brand of rugby, the Cheetahs added a solid defensive system to their arsenal.

    Cheetahs defence guru Michael Horak ensured the team leaked fewer tries, while conditioning coach Neil du Plessis remedied the side's almost chronic injury problems.

    In the past the Bloemfontein side would bemoan their debilitating injury list that ultimately chipped away at their already fragile player depth.

    Cheetahs' assistant coach Hawies Fourie said with fewer injuries they could also build consistency in their team selections.

    "The moment you get into a winning habit, the confidence is on the up while fewer injuries gives you continuity.

    "'The guys get to know each other better instead of having to build a new team every year."

    The changes in the team dynamic translated into better performances, which resulted in the team reaching the playoffs of the 2013 season.

    They lost to eventual losing finalists, the Brumbies, for a sixth place finish overall.

    The Cheetahs will go into this year's campaign a more settled side and are hopeful to continue their successes from last season.

    Fourie said the team aimed to finish first in the South African conference, enhancing their chances of making a serious claim for the title.

    "Last year we've shown what we are capable of. In the past we've conceded soft tries in matches we were leading, so we've improved a lot from that point of view," Fourie said ahead of the team's opening match against the Lions in Bloemfontein on Saturday.

    "The fact that we came so close to winning our quarterfinal against the Brumbies in Canberra had given us confidence and the appetite for more."

    He said the experience of travelling to Australia for the Brumbies clash, which they narrowly lost 15-13, gave the team a new perspective on what it would take to be serious title contenders.

    While claiming the South African conference was easier said than done, it would eliminate travelling across time zones and bring home field advantage.

    Springbok fullback Willie le Roux was mostly used on the wing and would be used in the last line of defence where he made an impressive debut for the national side.

    The back three of Le Roux, Raymond Rhule and Springbok Sevens player Cornal Hendricks on the wings are potential game breakers.

    The central franchise may have lost reliable centre Robert Ebersohn to French Top 14 club Montpellier at the end of the Currie Cup season, but gained the services of Bulls midfielder Francois Venter.

    Venter, a product of Grey College in Bloemfontein, should form a formidable combination with Johan Sadie.

    The Cheetahs lost scrumhalf Piet van Zyl to the Bulls, but new recruit Shaun Venter from the Southern Kings would supply cover in this position along with Sarel Pretorius

    Griquas centre Howard Mnisi, who impressed in last year's Currie Cup, was expected to feature in the side.

    In captain Adriaan Strauss the side had an inspirational leader, who led from the front and had international experience.

    The Cheetahs suffered an early injury blow last year when Springbok flyhalf Johan Goosen suffered a knee injury early in the season on their tour of Australasia. Burton Francis and Elgar Watts, however, proved to be more than capable replacements.

    While Francis has since left for French club side Agen, Goosen was back to wearing the number 10 jersey with Watts a solid backup.

    Fourie said part of the success in 2013 came down to the forwards pulling their weight and he was confident the pack would give his backline go-forward ball.

    "You can have the best backline in the competition but it means nothing without quality possession," he said.

    "We had guys like Philip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne and Lood de Jager that made their mark last year, who did not have Super Rugby exposure."

    He said the experience these players gained from last year would hold them in good stead during the 2014 campaign.

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