BLOEMFONTEIN – It may be a bold statement to make in round three of Pro14 Rugby, but Toyota Cheetahs star fullback Rhyno Smith believes his side can win the championship this season, something they have never had before.
Their demolition of Irish club Ulster last weekend followed a similar big win over last season’s finalists Glasgow Warriors, but the Cheetahs will face a different enemy in unbeaten Irish side Munster in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
Smith, who was part of the Cheetahs set-up last season, feels the team has taken a massive step-up and are playing with such confidence that no result is beyond them.
“The guys believe we can win this competition. We’ve won South Africa’s domestic competition and that’s brought confidence, combined with the fact that most of the guys have more than 20 caps in PRO14,” Smith said. “They know what the weather is going to be like and they know who they are playing against. They know what they can expect.
“So I think we believe for the first time in three years that we can win.”
And four tries in two games underline the fact that Smith is in red-hot form at the moment. He is leading a number of the competition stats and finally feels he has settled into a game plan that accentuates his strengths.
“I think the Cheetahs are keen to play the ball and run. Everyone is on the same page and I think it suits my game a bit more than the way we played at the Sharks. The fact that I’m getting picked makes a big difference.
“The coaching and management staff all back me and want me to play, and that makes a huge difference for a player. I enjoy that and it helps a lot.”
Smith knows just how tough it is to face the Cheetahs when they are on a roll. He played for the Sharks in the Currie Cup and was on the losing side as the Cheetahs romped towards the Currie Cup title. He believes that opposition backs will struggle with the pace of the Bloemfontein side.
“I played Currie Cup against the Cheetahs five weeks ago and I can tell you the pace these guys play at is so difficult to keep up with as an opposition player. You are busy covering space the whole time and, by the time you get a one-on-one with a guy that breaks through, you are so smashed that it is unfair to you.
“It is really difficult the way the Cheetahs play and altitude helps them.”
But can the Cheetahs transfer their free-flowing game plan to the different weather conditions of the European winter? Do they need to change their spots, so to speak, to be more tactical in the winter rain and sleet, and on the 4G pitches they will encounter?
Smith doesn’t believe this will be too much of a factor.
“The same question could be asked of the teams that tour here. If they bring that brand to our country and it is summer, is it still effective? If you do something well enough and it works, then you will be okay,” he says. “I suspect we will stick to what we do well and what we know well, and just try to perfect it.”
Franco Smith's still not satisfied, as @CheetahsRugby strive for perfection 💪
Surely a 10 in attack?? But room for improvement in defence 🚧
For now, it is Munster that looms large for the Cheetahs and Smith can’t wait to get onto the field.
The Irish side will be looking for a third straight victory and will be full of confidence after coming off a win against the Isuzu Southern Kings, but Smith knows that in the form the home side are currently in, they won’t be scared of anything coming their way.
“I expect them to be a well-trained, well-oiled machine. You kinda know what is coming, and you know you have to handle the aerial ball well. But if they are going to kick we are going to have to make them pay,” he smiles.
If he can get the ball in space, Smith may well be able to add to his impressive try-scoring tally this weekend and keep the dream alive of bringing the Pro14 title to South Africa.