Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The Cheetahs’ heroism in knocking over bigger franchise the Stormers in a breathless Super Rugby clash in Bloemfontein on Saturday has seen the team enter what might be branded virgin territory for them ... the playoffs places.
It is considerably too early, of course, to start firmly suggesting they will end in the all-important top six on the overall table, but sixth is where they currently do stand with some pride after banking four further precious log points from a ding-dong derby against the now fairly seriously wobbling team from Newlands.
Stand-in flyhalf revelation Burton Francis’s successful, pressure penalty three minutes after the hooter made all the difference as the Cheetahs snatched the honours 26-24
to hand the Stormers a near-demoralising fourth reverse from six outings.VIDEO: Cheetahs v Stormers, highlights
The Free Staters have now won a record, for them, five fixtures in succession after two defeats to start their 2013 campaign.
Their limited squad depth is sure to be tested increasingly severely in the brutal competition, with nine ordinary-season games still to be negotiated, but various other teams will be in much the same boat and the Cheetahs do have the satisfaction of knowing their fruitful overseas leg is well behind them and five of the further assignments are in “Bloem”.
Whether they eventually crack the playoffs for the first time or not, they seem promisingly on course to earn their best ever finish in Super Rugby under the Cheetahs banner - they have three times previously ended 10th (2006, 2010 and 2012).
When the competition was rather differently constructed back in 1997, they did manage to finish seventh, but then as the Free State provincial union.
At the very least they are a serious factor in the South African conference, and rugby enthusiasts on these shores can now contemplate two cracking derbies on the trot next Saturday as the Stormers first host the pace-setting Sharks (17:05) and then Adriaan Strauss and his merry men tackle the Bulls in Pretoria (19:10), trying to make it a really fairytale six consecutive wins.
They will feel anything is possible in the conference, given that traditional coastal powerhouses the Sharks and Stormers are yet to negotiate their respective four-match Australasian tours.
The Cheetahs will take special satisfaction from finally snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Stormers in the competition, as their backs had seemed firmly to the wall at the break, 15-7 down and with the visitors building a head of steam.
But fresh doubts will again surface around the Capetonians’ ability to get on the front foot and then actually stay there; their lineout had initially held a clear edge with Andries Bekker grabbing lots of possession on his own team’s throw and De Kock Steenkamp pilfering some off the opposition.
Sadly for the Stormers an old bogey, their scrummaging, came back to haunt them at a critical time: seconds from the last siren, and leading by one point, they had the put-in advantage at a scrum well in Cheetahs terrain but were unceremoniously shoved off the ball to earn the hosts a tighthead heel which ultimately got them back into place-kicking range for the decisive strike.
They also suffered another near inevitable, major injury setback as fullback Jaco Taute snapped his anterior cruciate ligament
in a knee and was left writhing in pain as he awaited the buggy - his Super Rugby season is clearly over.
With Bryan Habana still sidelined, they have a back-three selection issue to grapple with now, alongside ongoing woes in other departments.
If it is any consolation for the Stormers, they can still stabilise considerably from their current position (11th overall, fourth in conference) if they manage to beat the Sharks next weekend, even though their opponents will enter the game off a heartening victory over the Crusaders plus armed with the knowledge that they edged the dour first-round derby in Durban.
But how many more defeats can Jean de Villiers’s side afford if they are still to harbour hopes of repeating their conference triumphs of 2011 and 2012?
Last year they only surrendered two games in their entire 16-game programme ahead of the playoffs, and the previous season four, which is the tally they are presently on in 2013 with well over half of their fixtures still ahead.
It is beginning to look as if their best prospect may be to try to sneak a wildcard berth in the playoffs this time ...*Next week’s Super Rugby fixtures (home teams first, all times SA):
Friday: Highlanders v Brumbies (09:35). Saturday: Chiefs v Reds (06:35); Blues v Hurricanes (09:35); Rebels v Kings (11:40); Force v Crusaders (13:45); Stormers v Sharks (17:05); Bulls v Cheetahs (19:10). Bye: Waratahs.*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing