Simnikiwe Xabanisa

Cheetahs still have to prove themselves

The Cheetahs enjoyed a dream Super Rugby campaign, but is it realistic for them to expect continuous success, asks GARETH DUNCAN.

For years, the Cheetahs have been talking up their chances of qualifying for the Super Rugby play-offs, only to fall short time after time. Between 2006 and 2012, they won only 26% of their games, while their best finish was 10th place.

Then out of nowhere, the Cheetahs surprised everyone with their run into the play-offs. Their improved defence added balance to their game plan, which was central to their improvement. They also had their most successful overseas tour during the opening rounds, beating the Highlanders, Waratahs and Force out of their four fixtures in Australasia, which put them into a strong position to finish in the top six for the first time.

They were competitive during their qualifying play-off against the Brumbies in Canberra, losing 15-13 to the Australian conference winners. If the Cheetahs had been more accurate from the kicking tee, more clinical in the strike zone and had made smarter decisions, they could have pulled off an upset and advanced to the semi-finals. They had the opportunities to win the match, but their inexperience in knockout games was exposed.

Despite falling short, the Cheetahs made South African rugby proud. It’s no secret that the franchise has a limited budget, significantly smaller compared to the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks’ financial strengths, which is the main reason why they struggle to keep hold of their top players. They also don’t have the quality in depth compared to the bigger South African teams, making their achievement even more remarkable.

So the big question is: can the Cheetahs replicate their heroics? My answer is likely to be criticised by many, but the factors that stand against the men from Bloemfontein suggest they can't.

When analysing the Cheetahs’ 2013 Super Rugby campaign, you’ll realise they had a very favourable schedule (specifically at the business end of the competition). They toured early, like the Bulls, and were allowed to put the toughest part of the season behind them. They also avoided the Crusaders and Brumbies during the league phase.

Despite playing their strongest possible team for the opening 10 rounds, the Cheetahs were fortunate to escape serious injuries going to their first bye, giving them a less-stressful finish to the league phase. While they lost Johan Goosen early, they had enough depth at flyhalf. They had only four players (Adriaan Strauss, Trevor Nyakane, Piet van Zyl and Willie le Roux) playing for the Springboks during the June Tests, giving most of their squad rest at an ideal stage of the year.

The Cheetahs were lucky that the results during the closing league rounds went their way. The Waratahs (lost three of their last four games), Blues (lost their last six games) and Hurricanes (lost their last five games) all fell out of the play-off race.

The Cheetahs also capitalised on the Stormers and Sharks’ failures. Ironically, those two teams were expected to fly the South African flag in 2013, but injuries to key players and poor form curtailed their season. The two franchises are expected to bounce back next year, reducing the Cheetahs’ play-off chances. They're yet to beat the Bulls at Super Rugby level, too.

The Cheetahs have done well to extend most of their players’ contracts. Robert Ebersohn (Montpellier) and Piet van Zyl (likely the Bulls) will be their biggest losses at the end of 2013, which will give them continuity heading into the 2014 season.

The Cheetahs' improvement will create a more competitive South African conference, but I doubt they’ll be able to finish higher than the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks, should they receive a tougher fixture list and should their depth be tested.

In order to change this perception, they'll need to deliver again next season. The 2014 Super Rugby campaign will be a more accurate examination.

Photos: Ryan Wilkisky/Johan Pretorius/BackpagePix/Gallo Images

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