While the Cheetahs may not grab the back pages during the World Cup, there are plenty of reasons to keep an eye on their PRO14 progress, writes DYLAN JACK.
The past weekend was an incredibly frustrating one in the context of South African rugby. The reaction to an ‘incident’ involving Makazole Mapimpi, which then brought up arguments around Jesse Kriel and Eben Etzebeth, revealed that we as a nation still have a long way to go in terms of unity.
However, while we were debating on Twitter who and if Frans Steyn shooed someone from a celebration, the Cheetahs continued their remarkable start to the 2019-20 PRO14 season. The Currie Cup champions opened their campaign last weekend by beating last season’s finalists the Glasgow Warriors 48-14 and followed that up by absolutely hammering Ulster 63-26.
While some may point to the World Cup draining their opponents of their top players, both Glasgow and Ulster were still able to field relatively strong lineups. Glasgow had loosehead Oli Kebble in their scrum, someone who has been spoken about as Scotland’s next project player, as well as capped internationals in Huw Jones and Matt Fagerson. Ulster had attacking threats in Irish backs Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall, as well as forward grunt in Rob Herring and Wallabies lock Sam Carter.
These are both teams the Cheetahs would have struggled to contain last season, yet they both found themselves on the end of bonus-point losses this season. Let’s also not forget that the hosts were without the services of last season’s top try scorer Rabz Maxwane.
The Cheetahs have been incredibly fun to watch over the last two weekends. While they have continued to play their typical style of fast, attacking rugby, they have a new disciplined and experienced edge, allowing them to pick their best moments to open the game up. The Cheetahs have scored 15 and let in just six tries in their first two matches. That is a vast improvement on last season, when they conceded 13 and scored just twice in their first two matches, away against Munster and the Ospreys.
Their improvements this season may have plenty to do with the continuity they have enjoyed from the Currie Cup, keeping Franco Smith on as the interim head coach, while Hawies Fourie recovers from an operation. The impact of promoting Melusi Mthethwa from U21 coach to assistant has also clearly had an impact. Mthethwa is highly regarded, having shown his skill by getting the Cheetahs juniors to beat their far better-funded rivals.
Even more so, the Cheetahs are doing this with a more transformed team. They fielded six players of colour in their starting lineup against Ulster and all six look ready to make important contributions this season. Fullback Rhyno Smith looks a completely different player in the orange-and-white jersey than we saw in the pitch black of the Sharks. Smith appears to have embraced his escape from the overly structured game plan the Sharks employed in Super Rugby.
There is no exaggeration that hooker Joseph Dweba and flank Junior Pokomela could put in a challenge for Springbok colours next year, if they continue their current form. Dweba has clearly worked on his lineout throwing and scrumming, which has added to the destruction he causes when crashing the ball up. Pokomela has also grown immensely as a player over the last year and appears to have more of a positional discipline about him, especially when he drifts into the wider channels on attack.
Ox Nche will soon make his way to Durban to join the Sharks for their Super Rugby pre-season, but has still shown why he will be missed in Bloemfontein and loved in KwaZulu-Natal. There are very few props with Nche’s energy and work rate.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of tough challenges lying in wait for Hawies Fourie’s team. The Cheetahs next face Irish giants Munster, before embarking on their first overseas tour of the season. Their results and performances in those games could say much about whether the Cheetahs are ready to put in a run for the PRO14 title.
Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images