Beware the quiet ones. If there’s been a fair bit of noise at the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers in recent weeks, the Cheetahs have gone about their pre-season preparations pretty quietly and could well end up being South Africa’s pace-setters in this year’s Super Rugby series.
Victor Matfield’s return to the game after a two-year absence has filled Bulls’ fans with plenty of hope, Jake White’s presence at the Sharks has made the Durban side favourites to top the local conference, while Schalk Burger’s return for the Stormers strengthens the Cape side considerably. Lions’ fans are just happy they have a team to support over the next few weeks.
Down in Bloemfontein, the Cheetahs have gone about their business without too much fanfare and not too much attention focused in their direction. That’s surprising, if you consider they went all the way to the play-offs last year.
But coach Naka Drotske feels all the boxes have been ticked ahead of the weekend’s start to the 2014 competition and yesterday captain Adriaan Strauss said his team was in better shape than a year ago.
“We’re all very excited and knowing what we achieved last year makes us very positive about this season,” said Strauss. “We know it’s one helluva tough competition, but we now know we’re good enough to go all the way.”
The good news for the Cheetahs is that they’ve got greater depth this year and on top of that flyhalf Johan Goosen is over his injury problems and set to lead his team’s charge. Strauss is especially pleased that his No10 is back.
“Johan makes a big difference to the team. He’s a special player and we’ve seen that in our training sessions. He’s back to his best. There’s really just something about him and I’m expecting big things from him again this year,” said Strauss.
“But it’s not only Goose that gives us more options this year, it’s the whole squad. In every position there are players challenging for a starting spot and that always makes for a strong team.”
What made the Cheetahs so successful last year is that there weren’t too many injuries in the squad and that allowed Drotske to pick more or less the same side from start to finish. Consistency in selection will again be crucial, as well as overall performance.
“You’ve got to produce the goods each and every week,” said Strauss.
“There are no easy games. So many matches are decided by just a few points and you’ve got to try and be on the right side of those close games.
“There’s no let-up, so the key is to be focused from the first game to the last for every minute of the 80 minutes in a game.”
The Cheetahs kick off their campaign against the Lions in Bloemfontein on Saturday, and while many will feel it’s an easy start, Strauss says it’s anything but.
“The Lions have always given us problems, so it’s not going to be easy. They’ve got quite a few new players and they’re back after missing out last year so we don’t really know what to expect from them.
“They’re not like some other sides, where you know what you’re going to get, and they love throwing the ball around.
“I suppose both teams play quite attack-minded rugby so it should be a good one first up. We’re comfortable with where we are as a team and confident we can get off to a winning start.” - The Star