End of the road for Cheetahs?

Sport24 columnist Alan Solomons (File)
Sport24 columnist Alan Solomons (File)
After six months and 120 matches, the top six sides in Super Rugby have been decided. With the exception of the Cheetahs in the South African Conference, I can’t say I’m surprised by the playoff participants for 2013.

Prior to the season’s start, few would have predicted the Cheetahs would have trumped both the Stormers and Sharks in the playoff race. After strong seasons last, it’s fair to say that the coastal sides took a backward step in 2013 and will be duly disappointed by their own high standards.

The Stormers’ win over the Bulls at Newlands showcased the Cape side’s true capabilities. The Stormers are a side that have built themselves on a mean defence and are yet to discover a consistent balance between attack and defence.

Meanwhile, the Sharks endured an awkward season both on-field and off. Their long injury-list and management reshuffles were well-documented.

However, take nothing away from the Cheetahs who richly deserve to have reached the Super Rugby playoffs for the first time in their history. Naka Drotske’s men have developed into a well-balanced unit and displayed more consistency over the 20 rounds of action than their coastal rivals.

Aside from a shored-up defence, the Cheetahs success this season stems from playing with more structure. In the past, the Cheetahs ran the ball from all parts of the field, but in 2013 they clearly placed greater emphasis on gaining territorial ascendancy. While the Cheetahs still enjoy giving the ball air, they have played more sensibly this season.

In order to beat the Brumbies this Sunday, the Cheetahs will need to employ a well-rounded game strategy. First and foremost they will need to gain the edge in the forward exchanges, which will by no means be a formality. They will then need to win the tactical kicking duel against a well-organised Brumbies side.

While the Brumbies were disappointing in their final round-robin match, they have proved a formidable side under Jake White this season, and it terms of the physical stakes, are well capable of matching the Cheetahs pound-for-pound.

The Brumbies are a side adept at strangling their opponents, thus the Cheetahs must aim for supremacy in the set-phases. At the breakdown, I believe that the Cheetahs will have the edge. While George Smith has done outstandingly since his return to Super Rugby, I feel that Heinrich Brussow is even more dominant on the deck.

However, I don’t believe that this facet of play will decide the outcome.

The Brumbies defensive system will have to be sharp as the Cheetahs possess the skill of Willie le Roux and pace of Raymond Rhule in their arsenal. However, I believe the Brumbies have the beating of their visitors in terms of the territorial and tactical kicking stakes.

In modern rugby, a team’s tactical kicking game is certainly very important and in South Africa, the Bulls have probably best perfected the art. The Cheetahs have improved their accuracy in this department, but the Brumbies are a bit more developed.

Overall, while there is not much separating the sides, the fact that the Brumbies are playing on home turf makes a huge difference and edges the encounter in their favour.

The appointment of referee Glen Jackson is a plus. He has done a superb job in his transition from player to official. He has a good feel and understanding for the game, which I believe will prove beneficial for both sides and the spectacle as a whole.

In the trans-Tasman qualifier, while the Reds have the emotional charge of sending Ewen McKenzie off in style, the Crusaders are in menacing form.

While I rate the current Reds side, I sense that the Crusaders will simply have too much class and experience for their Australian adversaries.

Much like the Brumbies, I see the Crusaders triumphing by at least 10 points on their home turf.

Alan Solomons was assistant coach to Nick Mallett when the Springboks went 17 Tests unbeaten. He is currently EP Kings’ Director of Rugby and is a consultant to the IRB.

Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.
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