An earlier preview has mentioned that the Stormers have the reputation of being the most under-performing team since Super Rugby began but surely the Cheetahs’ record during from 2006 to 2016 warrants a strong claim to that description (leaving aside the relative strengths of each team’s playing squads).
They won only four times in 2016 (three times at home). Their best result ever: sixth in 2013, must be a fading memory now.
Francois Venter – Springbok and Cheetah’s captain
Coach Franco Smith will need to extract the maximum possible from a squad of lesser-known players. Significant changes in the squad include the loss of lock Lood de Jager (Bulls), backrower Willie Britz (Sunwolves), and flyhalf Sias Ebersohn; yet there were no big signings for 2017.
Captain and centre Francois Venter enjoyed some recognition in 2016 through national selection and will hope to maintain the interest of the selectors. He will be expected to create space for exciting winger Sergeal Petersen.
As with all South African sides, there is no shortage of big bodies with a pair of two-metre locks likely to cause some problems for opponents. Prop Ox Nche has benefited from nominative determinism and seems destined to develop into a Springbok, while flanker Uzair Cassiem is a genuine workhorse who will work from the first whistle to the last.
Unusually, the Cheetahs actually have two forwards who are listed as being under 100kg. Is this some kind of ploy?
Star Players: 1. Francois Venter, 2. Ox Nche, 3. Uzair Cassiem
Uzair Cassiem scores against Western Force in one of few victories for Cheetahs in 2016
The overall record of the Cheetahs is disappointing, make no bones about it. They have attained a winning percentage of 31% against all comers since 2006 but this drops to 21% away from home.
Historically, Kiwi teams have been kryptonite to the Cheetahs, with the boys from Bloemfontein in the heart of South Africa winning a mere 20% of all their match ups against NZ sides. This statistic plummets to 9% when matches are played in the land of the long white cloud.
Their overall success rate against Australian teams nudges 40%, but again they struggle away from home and the win rate in Australia drops to 21%.
Coach Franco Smith admits his squad is relatively inexperienced but many of them were blooded in 2016. They have their first three matches at home but need to improve their dismal away record.
First phase possession was solid in 2016 and exciting winger Sergeal Petersen can certainly find the line. And last year it wasn’t so easy to score against them: they may have been only mid-table in tries scored against, but two years before they were the worst in the competition.
Trials: The Cheetahs lost to the Stormers and the Sharks in pre-season hitouts but coach Franco Smith chose to bring the Cheetahs into 2017 on a light match preparation, taking the view that the Super Rugby competition will be physically demanding for his young squad.
Franco Smith – needs to nurse his young players in 2016
The Cheetahs start the season playing six of the seven other teams in the South African Group and would count on beating the Sunwolves, and trust that they could do the same against Los Jaguares, who won by just one point in their match last year. They would be hoping to snag a win at home in their first two games especially against the Bulls, who are in their Conference, or maybe later, the Sharks.
Those are high hopes because in the next six rounds they play all five New Zealand teams and travel to Auckland and Dunedin as part of that. At least their final three games are a relative breeze playing the Sunwolves and Kings, and the Stormers at home, either side of the June break.
2017 will be a year for the Cheetahs to survive and perhaps mark the cards of a few players with the hope of identifying talent to take forward to 2018.
They have to take the long term view with this squad and set in place the structures required for success at this level in future years.
They won only four games last year – against the three worst teams in the competition and there is no reason to suppose that such a melancholy outcome won’t be repeated. They have next to no chance of participating in the finals but should get third spot in the Africa 1 Conference again unless the Sunwolves perk up in their second campaign.
Africa 1 Conference – 3rd *
* Overall position ignored, as being irrelevant.