The Free State Cheetahs should be wary of Golden Lions captain Jaco Kriel when the sides meet in the semi-final at Ellis Park on Saturday. MARIETTE ADAMS reports.
No one Lions player has stood out head and shoulders above his peers this season. Instead, it's been a collective squad effort that saw Johan Ackermann's side topple every opponent as they ascended towards the summit of the Currie Cup standings with 10 victories from as many matches.
By contrast, the Cheetahs have been inconsistent throughout and only snuck into the play-offs via a last-gasp draw with the Sharks last weekend.
The Lions savaged the Cheetahs 73-31 in Bloemfontein during the league phase, with Kriel a constant menace to the hosts' fragile defence. He scored twice in the resounding victory and you get the sense that the dynamic flanker's performance will be crucial to the outcome of this semi-final.
Separated by 24 logs points, the Cheetahs enter this clash as big underdogs, and with good reason. They've blown hot and cold, but more so cold, managing just three wins in the regular season. Based on that form, it's difficult to see how they can stop a rampaging Lions outfit.
However, stranger things have happened. If the men from Bloemfontein can unsettle and disrupt Kriel and fellow loose-trio partners Warren Whiteley and Steph de Witt, they'll slow down the Lions' ball to their lethal backline. This may improve the Cheetahs' chances of causing an upset.
For that to happen, the Cheetahs will need Oupa Mohoje and Boom Prinsloo, who only recently recovered from a broken jaw, to step up against their direct opponents at the breakdown area and in defence. They have to show that they are not just in the play-offs to make up the numbers.
If the contest turns out to be closer than expected – which is almost always so in knockout matches regardless of form – the stage will be set for flyhalves Marnitz Boshoff and Niel Marais to battle for boot supremacy, both tactically and off the kicking tee. Whoever keeps his composure and imposes himself on the game more, will see his side through to the final.
In the only change to the Cheetahs starting XV, Marais has replaced Sias Ebersohn, while the Lions have made 14 changes to the side that beat Griquas last weekend.
The Cheetahs will have to combat the Lions' attack, before they start playing the expansive brand of rugby they've been exhibiting in this tournament, or else forfeiture might be a better option for the visitors.
KRIEL'S STATS THAT MATTER
11 – Turnovers won this Currie Cup season
9 – Defenders beaten
4 – Tries scored
4 – Clean breaks
62 – Carries
77 – Tackles made
429 – Metres run
Golden Lions – Andries Coetzee, 14 Courtnall Skosan, 13 Stokkies Hanekom. 12 Howard Mnisi, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Marnitz Boshoff, 9 Ross Cronjé, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Steph de Witt, 6 Jaco Kriel (c), 5 Franco Mostert, 4 Lourens Erasmus, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Malcolm Marx, 1 Jacques van Rooyen.
Subs: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Ruan Dreyer, 18 Fabian Booysen, 19 Kwagga Smith, 20 Jaco van der Walt, 21 Rohan Janse van Rensburg, 22 Sampie Mastriet.
Free State Cheetahs – 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter, 12 Ryno Benjamin, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Niel Marais, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Oupa Mohoje, 6 Boom Prinsloo, 5 Francois Uys (c), 4 Armandt Koster, 3 Luan de Bruin, 2 Jacques du Toit, 1 BG Uys.
Subs: 16 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 17 Maks van Dyk, 18 Reniel Hugo, 19 Gerhard Olivier, 20 Ruan van Rensburg, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 AJ Coertzen.
Referee: Jaco van Heerden
Assistant referees: Rasta Rasivhenge, Stephan Geldenhuys
TMO: Marius Jonker
Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images