Cape Town - There seems every reason to install the Free State Cheetahs as reasonably firm favourites for next Saturday’s Currie Cup final against the Golden Lions in Bloemfontein.
Examine the teams on paper and that tag looks less apparent; don’t write off the Johannesburg-based outfit’s chances, especially as they pipped the same opponents 24-22 - at Free State Stadium - in early August.
But these Cheetahs are on a very notable roll at a great time with three wins in a row (Pumas away, then Western Province and the Sharks at home) and the big talking point about them at the moment is how mercilessly they are outlasting visitors to their stronghold in the second half of contests.
While the Lions naturally also play much of their rugby at high altitude, Franco Smith’s charges should be oozing special confidence for the showpiece because, right now, they simply don’t know when they are beaten.
It will be a powerful motivator to take into the final - their first since they last landed the title in 2016 and the first time they will have played the Lions in the grand climax of the tournament since 2007, when they edged them out 20-18 also in “Bloem”.
The Cheetahs, in the space of a week, have turned the screws to devastating effect at advanced stages of their tussles with each of last year’s finalists, and from adverse situations not too far from seemingly irreversible.
First they turned a gaping 33-12 deficit against WP after 46 minutes into a vital 38-33 triumph that secured their rights to the home semi-final against the Sharks as last-gasp masters of ordinary-season play in the seven-team competition.
Then for the initial part of Saturday’s enthralling semi, Sean Everitt’s side quite clearly bossed proceedings, taking a well-merited 23-11 lead into the 45th minute.
Once again, though, the Cheetahs saved their best sparkle and urgency for the later part of hostilities, including a remarkable spell between the 62nd and 77th minutes when they produced a blitz of four tries to put the game clinically to bed 51-30.
It was almost a carbon copy of the way they had sucked the life out of Province, and the Cheetahs can now claim a total of 10 second-half tries (four then six, respectively) from those two dramatic matches.
Clearly something is being done right in squad conditioning and durability terms in Bloemfontein, simultaneously serving as a promising pointer to their hopes in this season’s looming Pro14 competition, where they are first in action against visiting Glasgow Warriors on September 27.
“It’s in their DNA; they stretch you ... we were all blowing (the more the game advanced),” was the honest post-match assessment of losing skipper Tera Mtembu after the Sharks had matched their foes roughly blow for blow for some two thirds of the high-tempo encounter.
The plucky side from the coast had reason to lament the departure through injury early in the second half of one of their most standout attack weapons earlier, the lanky young fullback Aphelele Fassi, yet the way the Cheetahs wrested control as if with the sudden snap of fingers suggested that they would have eventually prevailed with some comfort anyway.
While the Lions were also fitting winners (34-19) of the earlier semi-final against Griquas at Ellis Park, that contest lacked the intensity and effervescence of the one a bit further south.
Surprise packages for much of the season, the men from Kimberley had plenty of possession (roughly 57 percent of it, according to statistics later provided) but were badly mauled at scrum-time - Sti Sithole to the fore on the Lions’ loosehead side of the engine room – and badly let down at times by fatally slack tackling that, at least twice, allowed ball-carriers to wriggle free from tight situations and get over the chalk.
“Our own defence in our 22 was key,” correctly stated Lions scrumhalf and captain Ross Cronje afterwards.
They might need lots of it, and for it to stay properly adhesive for the best part of 80 minutes, if they are to scupper a keenly-fancied party in central South Africa next weekend ...
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