Super Rugby preview: Cheetahs

The inexperienced Cheetahs will be up against it in 2016, writes MARIETTE ADAMS.

A new-look Cheetahs side will play Super Rugby in 2016 after a mass exodus of players from the union in 2015, including Springboks Willie le Roux, Cornal Hendricks, Heinrich Brüssow and Coenie Oosthuizen. They also said goodbye to long-time coach Naka Drotské, who was replaced by Shimlas’ Varsity Cup-winning coach Franco Smith (below) just before the end of last year’s Super Rugby campaign.

Smith has his work cut out for him. The Cheetahs’ defence over the past two seasons has been shocking – in 2015, they conceded 531 points and 65 tries, the most in the tournament – while their attacking play has also regressed. The Cheetahs did win three matches on the road last season, against the Sharks, Force and Bulls, but were only able to win twice in Bloemfontein.

For Smith’s squad to be competitive they will need to strike a balance between attack and defence, something they rarely managed under Drotské. After his appointment as coach, Smith said he wanted the Cheetahs to play ‘beautiful and winning rugby, a style Free Staters can be proud of’, but that defence would be a top priority. Judging from the 2015 Currie Cup, where the Cheetahs conceded 37 tries in 11 matches, they haven’t got it right yet.

The Super Rugby draw has favoured the Cheetahs in 2016 and they will not play any of the New Zealand franchises during the regular season. However, they will still be hard-pressed to qualify for the quarter-finals ahead of the Stormers and Lions.

Boom Prinsloo, who played for the Blitzboks from 2010 to 2012, was one of the few players to deliver for the Cheetahs last season. The 26-year-old loose forward scored eight tries (more than any other South African and joint-fourth overall), made 147 carries (behind only Damian de Allende and Cheslin Kolbe as far as South Africans are concerned), completed 187 tackles (behind only Warren Whiteley and Michael Hooper), and forced 14 turnovers. Prinsloo has not only established himself as an integral member of the Cheetahs’ loose trio, but also as an influential leader. In the absence of Heinrich Brüssow, Prinsloo will have an especially important role to play for the Cheetahs this season, with the flanker having been widely recognised as a dangerman at the breakdown, where his work rate and sevens skills have served him well. Prinsloo is one of the Cheetahs’ few experienced players who will need to step up and make his presence felt.

While the Cheetahs no longer have a Springbok player in their backline, after the departures of Willie le Roux and Cornal Hendricks, 24-year-old Francois Venter is an explosive broken-field runner who can make an impact on attack. The 1.85m, 93kg centre, who will captain the Cheetahs in 2016, scored seven tries in the 2015 Super Rugby tournament, while clocking up 589 running metres. Venter also made 169 tackles (more than any other backline player in the tournament). Having been labelled a future star early in his career, he will be determined to show why he has been so highly rated. Talented former Junior Bok William Small-Smith has headed to the Cheetahs after receiving limited opportunities at the Bulls, and his prospective midfield partnership with Venter has immense potential.

Aranos Coetzee (Brive)
Sias Ebersohn (Force)
Neil Rautenbach (Stormers)
Paul Schoeman (Kings)
William Small-Smith (Bulls)
Fred Zeilinga (Sharks)

Dolph Botha (Shimlas)
Reiner Botha (Shimlas)
Francois Brummer (Pumas)
Heinrich Brüssow (NTT Docomo)
Stephan Coetzee (Griquas)
Jean Cook (Zebre)
Danie Dames (released)
Willie du Plessis (Toulon)
Carel Greeff (Kings)
Cornal Hendricks (Stormers)
Willie le Roux (Sharks)
Caylib Oosthuizen (Kings)
Coenie Oosthuizen (Sharks)
Joe Pietersen (Sharks)
Sarel Pretorius (Dragons)
Johann Sadie (Agen)
Steven Sykes (Kings)
Ewald van der Westhuizen (Griquas)
Elgar Watts (Kings)

26 February: Jaguars (h)
5 March: Stormers (h)
12 March: Sunwolves (a)
19 March: Lions (a)
26 March: Brumbies (h)
2 April: Bulls (a)
8-9 April: BYE
15 April: Sunwolves (h)
22 April: Rebels (a)
30 April: Reds (a)
7 May: Waratahs (a)
14 May: Kings (h)
20-21 May: BYE
28 May: Stormers (a)
2 July: Force (h)
9 July: Sharks (a)
16 July: Bulls (h)

Super 12

1996: Did not play
1997: 7th
1998: 12th
1999: 11th
2000: 4th (semi-finalists)
2001: 3rd (semi-finalists)
2002: 11th
2003: 12th
2004: 12th
2005: 11th
Super 14
2006: 10th
2007: 11th
2008: 13th
2009: 14th
2010: 10th
Super Rugby
2011: 11th
2012: 10th
2013: 6th (qualifier)
2014: 14th
2015: 12th
Note: Played as Free State in 1997 and did not qualify in 1996. Played as part of Cats franchise from 1998-2005

Won 5 (31%)
Lost 11

65 – Tries conceded (Rank 1)
531 – Points conceded (Rank 1)
215 – Defenders beaten (Rank 15)
1,339 – Carries made (Rank 15)
5,565 – Metres run (Rank 14)
110 – Clean breaks (Rank 12)
127 – Offloads (Rank 13)
345 – Missed tackles (Rank 3)
Source: Vodacom Rugby App

Cheetahs flyhalf Sias Ebersohn played for the Force from 2013 to 2015, scoring 212 points in 43 matches, before returning to Bloemfontein

Willie Britz

Bulls preview
Kings preview
Lions preview
Sharks preview
Stormers preview

VIDEO: New Super Rugby format explained with Cheetahs as example

Photo: Johan Pretorius/Gallo Images

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Mariette Adams