Bloemfontein – The loss of Springbok flanker Juan Smith, along with other stalwarts, meant a shaky start to the Cheetahs' Super Rugby season, but coach Naka Drotske insists his players are still positive about their chances.
The Cheetahs are not regarded as one of the favourites for an upset this year, but will be looking to improve their record from the 2012 campaign.
“It is important that the guys stay injury free and hopefully that is achievable,” Drotske said.
“It will be vital to our campaign, but we are looking much better than last season. The players are stronger and fitter and more eager than we were in last year's competition.
“That can make the difference this year.”
The Free State outfit picked up two victories on their overseas tour last year and ended the series in 10th place overall.
They will be looking to produce more of the same abroad, touring as early as the second week this season.
It will be difficult though, as they will have to make do without the services of burly flanker Smith, who had announced his retirement from professional rugby after a prolonged Achilles injury forced his hand.
Along with Smith's absence, other players have ventured to greener pastures, the most notable being flyhalf Sias Ebersohn (Western Force), flanker Ashley Johnson (London Wasps), lock George Earl (Scarlets), prop WP Nel (Edinburgh) and centre Andries Strauss.
New signings, including former Boland flyhalf Elgar Watts and former Bulls centre Johann Sadie, will give the Cheetahs some additional depth in the backline.
The return from injury of star playmaker Johan Goosen in the number 10 jersey will provide another plus for the men from Bloemfontein.
Among the forwards, big prop Coenie Oosthuizen has overcome a neck injury, while Springbok flanker Heinrich Brussow was recovering well from a shoulder injury and could be ready to play by mid-season.
Squaring up against the Sharks at home before climbing on the plane for Hamilton was not the optimal scenario for the Cheetahs.
Drotske acknowledged that a huge effort was needed from his charges if they were to gain early momentum in the competition.
“We need to start strong. We have two difficult fixtures, playing the Sharks at home and the Chiefs in Hamilton the week after.
“Both played in last year's final and will be tough opponents so early on, but we are positive.”
The Cheetahs host the Sharks at Free State Stadium on Saturday in their opening game of the Super Rugby campaign. – Sapa