The Cheetahs' lack of finals experience will count against them in Sunday's play-off against the Brumbies, writes JON CARDINELLI.
The odds are close to insurmountable. The Cheetahs will travel to Australia and compete at a venue where the hosts have a 2013 record of won six, drawn one, lost one.
The Brumbies may no longer boast the genius of George Gregan and Stephen Larkham, but they have been forged into a highly competitive side over the past two seasons. World Cup-winning coach Jake White has placed an emphasis on defence and tactical kicking and has encouraged the talented backs to express themselves in the right areas of the field. It's a perfect template for a play-off situation, and pitted against the Cheetahs, the Brumbies have the edge in terms of tactics.
In 2013, the Cheetahs produced the most balanced brand of rugby of the five South African franchises. Defence has received just as much attention as attack on the training paddock and that hard work has been reflected in their performances. In 16 league matches they conceded 32 tries, the fifth-fewest in the competition.
There's no denying that they've achieved something special in 2013. They qualified for the play-offs for the first time in history, a victory against the odds when you consider their financial constraints and lack of depth. As captain Adriaan Strauss has mentioned, they've started to win close matches that they would have lost in the past, another sure sign that they've grown and matured as a unit.
There's a lot to celebrate if you're a Cheetahs fan, and yet there's no getting around the fact that they go to Canberra as underdogs.
The Sharks bucked the trend in 2012 when they travelled to Australia and beat the Reds in a qualifying play-off. The win was not inconceivable given that the Sharks had gathered terrific momentum at the back end of the league stage and they were boosted by several prominent players returning from injuries.
The Cheetahs have not been as convincing, at least not in their past three league matches. They tried to change tactics for the game against the Stormers in Cape Town, calling it an approach geared for finals rugby. Unfortunately, their aggression and execution were sorely lacking and so they were soundly beaten.
They did well to beat the Blues in their final league match and the game was much closer than the scoreline suggests. In those last three league games, they did not play with the fluidity and authority that they did prior to the break for the June Tests.
Perhaps a long season has caught up with the players. They enjoyed their first bye of the Super Rugby competition only in Round 12 and their second in Round 20 (after their final league match). Some of the more prominent players (read Strauss and Willie le Roux) started for the Springboks in all three June Tests. They have shown signs of fatigue and have not been as effective in the latter stages of the Super Rugby league.
I'm sure the Cheetahs won't be short of motivation in their first ever play-off game. But I don't believe they will be any more motivated than the Brumbies.
What will be under scrutiny is the Cheetahs' aggression, accuracy, and composure; all of which were absent in that recent game against the Stormers.
The Brumbies have a young backline, and yet goal-kicker Christian Lealiifano showed his nerve in the recent series between Australia and the British & Irish Lions. They have a host of Wallabies in their line-up, with veteran George Smith having won two Super Rugby titles with the franchise (in 2001 and 2004).
The Brumbies also have the players suited to a more tactical game. The play-off in Canberra is certain to follow this pattern and it is the Cheetahs who will have to make a greater adjustment in terms of their existing game plan.
The breakdown battle between Smith and Heinrich Brüssow is sure to be billed as a classic, but I suspect the Brumbies will have the better of the Cheetahs at the set pieces and collisions, and this will give Smith the edge he needs to exert his influence.
It will be interesting to see how the Cheetahs halfback combination responds if their pack is not going forward. Piet van Zyl is a talented youngster, but his kicking game has been inconsistent this season. Riaan Smit, who has kicked some important goals in the absence of star flyhalf Johan Goosen, will also need to lift his tactical kicking game.
It's also important that they don't overplay the kicking tactic, like they did in the recent game at Newlands. The Brumbies have a strong kicking game, but they also possess some dangerous counter-attacking players in Jesse Mogg, Henry Speight, and Joe Tomane. If the Cheetahs kick, they must kick with a purpose; either to find touch, space, or to create a contest in the air.
The Brumbies wobbled in their last game against the Western Force, but they will be a far tougher prospect in Canberra in a play-off game. The Cheetahs have done well to climb this high in the Super Rugby rankings, but at present they don't have the tools nor the mettle to reach the summit.
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images
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