Hawies Fourie has rejigged the Free State Cheetahs backline for the battle for first spot on the Currie Cup log against the Vodacom Bulls in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Fullback Clayton Blommetjies and flyhalf Siya Masuka have fully recovered from illness and will start for the Cheetahs, replacing Cohen Jasper and Reinhardt Fortuin, respectively.
Fortuin has been ruled out with a leg injury while Jasper has been dropped after the Cheetahs’ 29-28 defeat to the Pumas at Free State Stadium on Friday.
With less than a minute left on the clock, skipper Ruan Pienaar had a chance to win it for the hosts, but his long-range penalty attempt went wide of the right-hand upright.
A furious Pienaar, playing in his 50th match for the Cheetahs, stormed off the field and down the players’ tunnel after the final whistle.
Speaking to the media on Friday, Pienaar said: “Everyone is still upbeat and positive… we just need to get back on the horse again. Our starts the last few weeks have put us under pressure. Hopefully be a more accurate and aggressive and trust what we’ve done all season.”
In midfield on Saturday, David Brits will trade places with Robert Ebersohn among the replacements, with Andisa Ntsila to don the No 6 jersey in place of Gideon van der Merwe, who has been rested. A fit-again George Cronje takes Ntsila’s spot on the bench.
In the other change to the pack, loosehead prop Cameron Dawson gets a run out ahead of the omitted Schalk van der Merwe.
Explaining his selections for Saturday’s crunch clash, Fourie said: “Siya is a level-headed guy who just goes about doing his thing and normally executes, his stability will help us control the game. We’ve got a lot of trust in Siya.
“We need to score four tries this week and we feel David has more pace than Robert. Gideon has taken a lot of knocks and feel it’s better to give him a break as we’ll need him for the semis. Decided to go with a 6-2 bench and pick George to give him game time. He’s been training well and shown a lot of energy.”
Going into the weekend’s round of crucial matches, holders the Bulls lead the standings on 47 points, followed by the Cheetahs in second on 43 points.
The Bulls and the Cheetahs have secured home semi-finals, but the Cheetahs will be hungry to negate the Bulls’ four-point lead and finish top of the standings.
On current form, that would appear to be a huge ask as the Free Staters have lost their last two league games after going on an impressive nine-game unbeaten run.
The Cheetahs and Bulls have won two games each in the last five clashes between the sides. The men from Bloemfontein are hoping to repeat a 38-25 victory at Loftus Versfeld in February.
Fourie added: “It’s important for us to finish on the top of the log and give us a better chance of being in the final and winning it, by hosting a home semi-final and possibly the final.”
Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Daniel Kasende, 13 David Brits, 12 Chris Smit, 11 Rosko Specman, 10 Siya Masuku, 9 Ruan Pienaar (c), 8 Jeandre Rudolph, 7 Aidon Davis, 6 Andisa Ntsila, 5 Victor Sekekete, 4 Rynier Bernardo, 3 Aranos Coetzee, 2 Louis van der Westhuizen, 1 Cameron Dawson.
Subs: 16 Marnus van der Merwe, 17 Alulutho Tshakweni, 18 Marne Coetzee, 19 Ockie Barnard, 20 George Cronje, 21 Mihlali Mosi, 22 Rewan Kruger, 23 Robert Ebersohn.