Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, Cheetahs captain FRANCOIS VENTER discusses why the franchise deserves to retain its Super Rugby status and previews the tie with the Jaguares in Buenos Aires on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: What is your report card of the Cheetahs after three rounds of Super Rugby?
Francois Venter: We have certainly done well in the sense that we have collected nine points from a possible 15. While we have won two-thirds of our matches thus far this season, I would give us a grade of 50 percent because I feel that we are only halfway towards reaching our full potential. There is no denying that we are on track after registering back-to-back victories over the Bulls and Sunwolves but we are under no illusions that there is significant room for improvement this season. We have finished 14th, 12th and 14th on the combined Super Rugby standings over the last three years and as a group we know that that is not good enough. I can’t tell our supporters that we will beat our remaining opponents this season but I can guarantee that we will give our best every week. We trained extremely hard in the pre-season and I truly believe that we are better prepared than ever before but the proof will be in the pudding. We have played some great rugby in our first three matches but have been guilty of some soft moments particularly in the second half. As a team, we tend to take our foot of the pedal at times. We need to discover a ruthless edge and play with the same swagger we displayed in the Currie Cup. While the tournaments are different beasts, I foresee the confidence we derived from our Currie Cup triumph rubbing off on our Super Rugby campaign.
Sport24 asked: The Cheetahs could be one of three teams to lose their Super Rugby status when the competition is restructured. Why do you feel the Cheetahs warrant automatic inclusion?
Francois Venter: For me, the Free State is a central and essential province within South African rugby. The production line of talent has been immense over the years and taking the Cheetahs out of Super Rugby would kill Free State rugby. We can only do our talking on the field and hopefully we can make a statement this year so that there will be no reason to exclude us from Super Rugby. Every player in the Free State wants to be part of this competition and play against the best talent week-in and week-out. I don’t mind if the administrators want to restructure the competition but the bottom line is that I don’t want us to be cut from Super Rugby. I’m really enjoying my rugby in Bloemfontein and we are creating a winning culture with coach Franco Smith at the helm. At the Cheetahs, we produce an exciting brand of rugby and the players and coaches will always work hard in order to remain competitive. There is no doubt that taking away the right to compete in Super Rugby will represent a significant challenge for any South African province. (The axe also looms large over the Southern Kings with a 17.64 percent winning ratio in Super Rugby compared to the Cheetahs’ 37.31%) The organisers of the competition are clearly trying to make the numbers add up but, from my point of view, it would equate to a greater loss than a gain by eliminating certain Super Rugby franchises.
Sport24 asked: Your policy of playing yourself out of defence in order to find space for your kicking game has come in for criticism. Is it fair to suggest the Cheetahs play high-risk, high-reward rugby?
Francois Venter: At the Cheetahs, we are all about attack and we pride ourselves on an expansive style of play. One of the reasons we play a bit more of an attacking game is because we want to play ourselves into a position where we can kick on our own terms. Some people may refer to it as high-risk rugby but we are encouraged to play what’s in front of us and not just what we are coached. We don’t see it as taking a risk but rather embracing responsibility. Everybody can play rugby but you have to have the confidence and backing of the coach in order to play what you see in front of you on the field. Structure remains an important facet but pure instinct is always better than pre-planning. Something I really admire about coach Franco is that he instils confidence in his players which allows us to take to the field and express ourselves. In the past, I have been burdened by the fear of failure. And when you start over-thinking your game and not playing according to your instinct, you can come unstuck.
Sport24 asked: You’re a relatively young skipper at the age of 25. Is backing youth the best policy?
Francois Venter: I believe so. Coach Franco always reminds us that experience is not what you know but what you do with what you know. You get players who have played a lot of rugby but they simply don’t stand out. I maintain that young players are always the ones who want it more. In terms of captaincy, it’s all about leading by example and not talking too much. I’m blessed at the Cheetahs because I have the buy-in from my team-mates. It’s crucial because if you aren’t someone that other players look up to you are just another voice. I’m privileged that I can rely on other young guys around me who are also aiming to be successful and wanting to inspire others. We have set ourselves goals as a group and strive for excellence and to be significant. In order to accomplish our objectives as a team, it’s about getting up every day and being professional in everything that we do both on-field and off.
Sport24 asked: Defence has long been the Cheetahs’ downfall. How are you tackling this issue?
Francois Venter: It’s not acceptable for us to leak a large number of tries and it remains a work-on. However, the stats show that we have an 86 percent tackle completion rate and have made 52 dominant tackles after three rounds, which is a step in the right direction. Most of the tries we concede (the Cheetahs have conceded 10 tries this season) are from turnovers. The reality is that if we get our expansive attacking game wrong and concede turnovers it’s difficult to subdue a well-worked counter-attack. Coach Franco always says that if we keep the ball, the opposition can’t score any points. It’s a simple principle which makes sense and we aim to maintain ball possession. The defensive lapses - which is not a system error - generally arise when players become relaxed and choose to be expansive when they should rather keep things simple and remain solid. As a player, I will naturally make mistakes on defence and miss first-time tackles - everybody does - but the next action in the match is the most important. Our defence coach, Charl Strydom, has been working tirelessly behind the scenes with us and I believe it’s one of our patterns which have improved immensely of late. We have been working really hard on our defensive structures so as to ensure that it matches our expansive attacking plans.
Sport24 asked: What’s your outlook ahead of the Cheetahs’ duel with the dangerous Jaguares?
Francois Venter: The Jaguares are a very physical side and are a disruptive force at the breakdown. The men from Argentina are always in your face as opponents and relish an arm-wrestle. I’m excited to see how my team-mates fare in Buenos Aires (Venter is set to return to the match-day squad next week after recovering from an ankle injury). We have been heavily disrupted by injury but I believe that the players who have been selected are good enough to wear the jersey. They get a chance to go out there and prove themselves against an experienced side that boasts a host of internationals in their arsenal. A tactic for us is to get on their nerves and bring out their ill-discipline. The Jaguares have conceded five yellow cards after three matches and their lack of discipline is their Achilles heel. The one-week suspension of Nicolas Sanchez - owing to foul play against the Lions - is a blow for the Jaguares. The diminutive flyhalf is one of their primary playmakers and controls the game very well. That being said, we are not focusing on them too much. We are truly concentrating on following our processes and executing our skills under pressure in the cauldron that is the Jose Amalfitani Stadium.
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