Cheetahs boss Franco Smith will be hoping the experience gained by many of his players in last year’s Varsity Cup final will rub off on their teammates when his side come up against the Blue Bulls in the Currie Cup title decider in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
And leading the charge will be none other than the man who played such a big role for Shimlas winning their first Varsity Cup title, under Smith’s guidance, last year than flyhalf Niel Marais.
The bearded No 10 scored a try and kicked six conversions as the University of the Free State side thumped North West University Pukke 63-33. The 24-year-old, who’s made the Cheetahs flyhalf position his own after standing back to Fred Zeilinga in the first part of the Currie Cup, says the experience of playing in the Varsity Cup final will hopefully give their youngsters some confidence.
“Of course it helps we went through that final, but also last year’s Currie Cup semi and last weekend’s semi against the Lions,” said Marais ahead of Saturday’s showdown with the Blue Bulls.
“We’re a totally different team to the one that lost in the Currie Cup semis last year; we’ve grown up a lot since then and gained lots of experience, especially in this year’s Super Rugby competition.
“Super Rugby taught us what to do and when ... it made us grow up quickly and it’s an experience that’s helped tremendously.”
Joining Marais in the Cheetahs outfit from that title-winning Shimlas team are forwards Ox Nche, Armandt Koster, Niell Jordaan and Henco Venter, as well as star centre Nico Lee.
Several other players are on the fringes of selection and have already played for the Cheetahs under Smith, while others are on the injured list.
Marais, a big and strong No 10 who likes to spread the ball as often as he can, says he’s moulded his game on Ireland’s Jonny Sexton, a star for his country and the British and Irish Lions.
“I think I’m that sort of player ... someone who attacks strongly and plays what he sees in front of him,” says Marais. “I think I might frustrate the coach sometimes but I don’t see any reason to change something if it’s going well.”
Not only will Smith be banking on his Varsity Cup stars in the Currie Cup final this weekend, but a few former Pumas players who’ve found a home in Bloemfontein. No 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld first shot to prominence at the Pumas as a flanker and then hooker, while scrumhalf Shaun Venter and flank Uzair Cassiem both started out at the Pumas.
Also, Clayton Blommetjies took his first steps in senior rugby at the Bulls, Sergeal Petersen played at the EP Kings, while captain Francois Venter couldn’t find a place at the Bulls.
Others who’ve made Bloemfontein home in the last few years include replacement flyhalf Zeilinga (Sharks), Paul Schoeman (EP Kings) and Reniel Hugo (Western Province and Bulls).
Wing and centre Ryno Benjamin, who’s spent the last six years with the Cheetahs, first ran out for the Boland Cavaliers and then the Lions and actually featured for the Joburg side when they faced the Cheetahs the last time the Bloemfontein team won the title, in 2007.
Benjamin played on the left-wing for the Lions in their 20-18 defeat that year.
“I lost with the Lions that day, but maybe I’ll win it with the Cheetahs this time,” said the 33-year-old Benjamin Tuesday. “I’m loving my rugby and have no desire to give it up.”