Cheetahs rejoin the bun fight

    2013-06-03 12:34

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – Collecting only a losing bonus point from their Super Rugby derby against bogey side the Bulls on Saturday night means the Cheetahs face a nervy few weeks once the competition resumes for them in late June.

    They will also have to try to overcome a long-time jinx of another kind when they tackle the Stormers immediately after the recess at Newlands on June 29.

    Having slipped to fifth overall, Adriaan Strauss’s team are probably involved now in a three-way tussle for two playoffs slots with the Crusaders and Blues, although various others – including the Stormers and Sharks – still harbour increasingly faint hopes of qualification.

    That pair of New Zealand sides are snapping at their heels, each with three games left as opposed to the Cheetahs’ two – a situation that brings an advantage but also possible pitfall for the Free Staters, who are trying to reach the knockout phase for the first time.

    They and the Reds, one notch above them in fourth on the overall table, are the only two sides remaining in the competition with four bye points yet to bank, and the Cheetahs will collect theirs on the final weekend of ordinary season.

    Those points could prove to be manna from heaven for Naka Drotske’s charges, but if it is found that five points is the requirement by then for the Cheetahs to squeeze through the playoffs tube, the quartet could become a curse instead as the side from Bloemfontein kick their heels as the only non-playing team in the last round.

    Everything hinges on how the Cheetahs fare, then, in their fixtures before that against the Stormers away and then Blues at home (July 6).

    Win both and the Cheetahs will be in the playoffs, plain and simple: that is a nice incentive for them to chew on during the competition’s break.

    But if they lose to the Stormers, who are showing no signs of throwing in the “competitiveness” towel even though they are all but dead and buried for qualification, that Blues encounter becomes a real white-knuckle affair.

    There are no guarantees that the Cheetahs will overcome the Capetonians: they have not won at Newlands in Super Rugby, after all, in four visits since a 31-25 triumph in 2006 (their first season as an independent entity since the dismantling of the “Cats” alliance with the Golden Lions).

    So they could enter that clash with almost the same sort of psychological cloud hanging over them that they more routinely suffer against the Bulls.

    No wonder, then, that in New Zealand it is also being speculated that the Cheetahs-Blues meeting in Bloemfontein could be pivotal to which of the two progresses – Gregor Paul suggested as much in the New Zealand Herald on Sunday.

    “The fact that the Waratahs and Cheetahs both lost over the weekend means that the Blues’ defeat (to the bottom-placed Highlanders) in Dunedin was more disappointing than disastrous.

    “The fight for the last playoffs spot would appear to be between the Cheetahs, Blues and Crusaders ... (the Bloemfontein game) looms as a decider.”

    Conveniently forgotten from a New Zealand point of view, maybe, is that before their Cheetahs challenge, the Blues must also tackle the Sharks on the road, and by then the Durban-based side may have plenty of their known heavyweight names finally fit again.

    These are the remaining matches for the trio:

    Cheetahs (played 14, fifth with 46 points): Stormers (a), Blues (h), bye.

    Crusaders (played 13, sixth with 46 points): Highlanders (a), Chiefs (h), Hurricanes (h)

    Blues (played 13, seventh with 43 points): Sharks (a), Cheetahs (a), Chiefs (h).

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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