Cheetahs coach Franco Smith wants his team to win away from home during next season’s Pro14, writes SIMON BORCHARDT in SA Rugby magazine.
When the final whistle blew in the Cheetahs’ Pro14 semi-final qualifier against the Scarlets in Llanelli on 5 May, it ended a ‘season’ that had begun on 25 February 2017 with a Super Rugby match against the Lions in Bloemfontein. If you take into account that the Cheetahs gathered on 8 November 2016 to start their pre-season preparations, their entire campaign lasted 544 days.
In that period, the Cheetahs finished 13th on the overall log in what would prove to be their final Super Rugby season. They were top of the Currie Cup log after six matches, but fielded a second-string side for the rest of the tournament because of a clash with the Pro14 and failed to make the semi-finals. And with their best team in the Pro14, the Cheetahs went on to finish third in Conference A and qualify for the six-team playoffs.
‘It was tough for the players, who had to push through an 18-month season, but I never once heard anyone complain,’ says Rory Duncan, who coached the Cheetahs in the Pro14 before joining the Worcester Warriors in England. ‘The guys were up for the challenge and excited to be playing in a new competition. That kept them motivated.’
Duncan was able to rest players for up to 10 days at a time when the Pro14 was interrupted by the European Champions Cup, but 21 league matches still meant a hard slog for a squad that hadn’t had a decent break in a while.
The Cheetahs had played their last Super Rugby match against the Kings in Port Elizabeth on 14 July, and began their Currie Cup campaign just seven days later against the Sharks in Bloemfontein. Duncan opted to play his first-choice team in the first six matches of the domestic tournament, with five wins taking them to the top of the Currie Cup log. That side then switched its attention to the Pro14.
‘Resting players in that period between Super Rugby and the Pro14 could have been a discussion,’ he says. ‘But the Currie Cup is important to the Cheetahs and we were defending champions going into last year’s tournament. Confirmation of our entry into the Pro14 was also only made just before the Currie Cup, for which we had made a lot of plans. It wasn’t an easy process to determine how we were going to manage the guys when the competitions clashed. We opted to play our best team for the first six Currie Cup games and again for a match against the Lions later in the competition. Otherwise, we committed fully to the Pro14.’
Franco Smith, the former Bok assistant coach who has replaced Duncan as Cheetahs head coach, says the union will continue to take the Currie Cup seriously and won’t field a B team for the duration of this year’s competition, which has been shortened to just one round of league matches.
‘The Currie Cup will start two weeks before the Pro14, which will give us an opportunity to give everyone a run,’ he says. ‘We will use our full squad for the two competitions and take it on a week-to-week basis. Who we play in each competition on a particular weekend will determine what teams we field.
‘It’s going to be a challenge for the coaches, but we’ve been working closely with the Free State XV in the Provincial Rugby Challenge to maintain continuity and upskill players. We welcomed back our other players, who went on holiday after the Pro14, on 13 June.
‘We will certainly be much better prepared going into next season’s Pro14 than we were last year,’ he adds.
The Cheetahs weren’t helped by last season’s Pro14 fixture list. Starting a new tournament at home with a couple of games against easier Italian or Welsh opposition would have been ideal. Instead, they had to travel to Ireland for tough fixtures against Ulster and Munster, losing 42-19 and then 51-18.
‘We thought we would take some momentum from the Currie Cup into the Pro14, but were given a rude awakening in Ireland,’ says Duncan. ‘We certainly didn’t underestimate the opposition. There were just a couple areas of our game that we needed to focus on, like our game management and kicking game. In Super Rugby, there’s a lot of ball-in-hand play, and you often run the ball from your 22. We didn’t stop doing that in the Pro14 – we still had a go when it was on – but we needed to make some adjustments for European conditions. After the loss to Munster, the management team said, “Listen, there’s something missing in our game and some things we need to change.” We identified what those were and implemented them. Playing in wet and cold conditions may not sound tough, but it is quite an adjustment. If you make mistakes in those conditions, you get punished.’
Back home, the Cheetahs quickly turned things around with consecutive wins against Zebre, Leinster and the Ospreys, before suffering a narrow loss to the Glasgow Warriors. They would end up winning eight of their 10 matches at Free State Stadium, including a crucial 29-27 victory against the Cardiff Blues, who would finish nine points behind them in Conference A.
Reaching the playoffs in their first season was a great achievement, but the Cheetahs would progress no further than the semi-final qualifiers, as they were hammered 43-8 by the champion Scarlets in Llanelli.
Smith, who coached Treviso for seven years, acknowledges that the Cheetahs will have to start winning regularly in Europe too if they are to become serious contenders. They will have two game plans for next season – one for each hemisphere.
‘Pro14 rugby is a lot closer to Test rugby than Super Rugby,’ he says. ‘Teams can take more risks in Super Rugby and you don’t have that freedom in European conditions. One of the reasons the Springboks have struggled to find good game managers is that the requirements for Super Rugby are so different to those for Europe.
‘It makes sense for the Cheetahs to use South African conditions to our advantage and we did so this season by scoring some good tries. But we also need to have a game plan suited to European conditions.’
The Cheetahs won just two of their 10 matches in Europe last season, a 24-23 win against Zebre and a 29-17 victory against the Dragons. Frustratingly, on three occasions, they lost matches they should have won. Against Treviso, the Free Staters were ahead 16-8 after 54 minutes when they received two yellow cards in quick succession. The hosts scored two tries against 13 men and went on to win 27-21. The Cheetahs would also surrender a 10-point lead against the Cardiff Blues to go down 25-20 and a 12-point lead against the Ospreys to suffer a 27-26 defeat.
‘It was very frustrating to lose those games, but it wasn’t because of a lack of character,’ says Duncan. ‘The players just made some costly errors, which was part of their learning experience in the competition.’
It had been hoped that including the Cheetahs and Kings in the Pro14 would help South Africa retain its players. However, during the course of the campaign, several Cheetahs players announced they would be joining European clubs next season, including captain Francois Venter (Worcester), Uzair Cassiem and Clayton Blommetjies (Scarlets) and Tom Botha (Ospreys). Worcester also announced that Duncan would be joining the club as head coach in June.
The Cheetahs have become a feeder union for other South African teams and may need to make peace with the fact European clubs are also going to target their best players.
‘Clubs will notice our players when they play against us or watch us play against other teams and try to sign some of them,’ Smith says. ‘We’ve lost more than a dozen players to overseas clubs, so we will have to start again next season. But we pride ourselves on giving players opportunities and helping to change lives, and we’ve done that, as several of them have gone on to earn big salaries abroad. We’re going to fight as hard as we can to keep players here, but it’s not easy.’
Duncan doesn’t think the Cheetahs exodus is that concerning.
‘We have lost a few players because they were in the Pro14 shop window, but I still believe the tournament will help keep players in South Africa. Having two teams in the Pro14 provides South African players with an opportunity to play in another top-flight competition.
‘A lot of the players who have left us had been with the union for four or five years, which is the average life span of a top Cheetahs player in modern-day rugby,’ he adds. ‘We managed to keep some players for an extra season, so we’ve actually lost two seasons worth of players in one go.’
Another talking point during the Pro14 was the poor crowd attendances for matches in South Africa. The Kings had a crowd of just over 3 000 for their first match at the 46 000-capacity Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and while the Cheetahs’ crowds were better, they often dropped below 10 000 at the 46 000-capacity Free State Stadium. Rugby fatigue among fans, who had just watched a whole Super Rugby season, no doubt played a part, while it took South Africans a while to learn about European teams and players who they’d had little interest in before.
Duncan admits the Cheetahs’ crowd figures weren’t what they had hoped for, but expects them to get better.
‘Once the South African public realises that the Pro14 is a quality competition with high-calibre teams and players, crowds will improve and more people will start watching on TV,’ he says. ‘The past season’s tournament was an introductory one for many fans, and I believe it is only going to grow.’
Smith says South Africans are mistaken if they regard the Pro14 as an inferior competition to Super Rugby.
‘If you consider how well the Pro14 teams did in the Champions Cup this season [two Irish teams and one from Wales reached the semi-finals] you could argue that the Pro14 is the best club competition outside the Champions Cup.’
And Smith is determined to win it, although he won’t commit to a timeframe.
‘Our goal is to become the first team to win competitions in both hemispheres in the same season,’ he says. ‘Of course, that won’t happen overnight, especially now that we’ve lost so many players who had gained some experience of playing in Europe.
‘I don’t want to put pressure on the team by saying, “This is the season we will win the Pro14”. I’d never do that.
‘Next season we want to play winning rugby and win away from home. And we want to play a brand of rugby that will make our supporters proud, but also be able to adapt our game to European conditions. If we can achieve that, I will be very satisfied.’
DEPARTING CHEETAHS PLAYERS
Francois Venter (Worcester Warriors, England)
Johan Goosen (Montpellier, France)
Uzair Cassiem (Scarlets, Wales)
Clayton Blommetjies (Scarlets, Wales)
Tom Botha (Ospreys, Wales)
Reniel Hugo (Toyota Verblitz, Japan)
Niel Marais (Yamaha Júbilo, Japan)
Clinton Swart (Toyota Verblitz, Japan)*
Henco Venter (Toshiba Brave Lupus, Japan)*
Carl Wegner (Toyota Verblitz, Japan)
Torsten van Jaarsveld (Bayonne, France)
Paul Schoeman (Bulls, South Africa)
Rynier Bernardo (Canon Eagles, Japan)
Fred Zeilinga (Canon Eagles, Japan)
*Short term, will return to Bloemfontein
– This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.