Determining who’ll be Top Cat

The catfight at Ellis Park tonight should be a far closer contest than the previous fixture at Bloemfontein. Keo.co.za analyses the two team’s respective strengths.

The Vodacom Cheetahs will have arrived in Johannesburg full of confidence, having disposed of the Valke 78-8 last week with what could be described as their ‘B’ team. The Lions are equally buoyant, having resurrected their playoff hopes in the past few weeks with three consecutive victories, which include the scalps of the Sharks and the Vodacom Blue Bulls.

Confidence aside, there is still plenty of work to be done in taking the points from this fixture. Here’s a look at a few key battles that should shape the outcome of this year’s scrap for the title of Top Cat.

THE FRONTLINE

This will be the most significant contest tonight, as the Cheetahs rely heavily on their front row to supply them with quality first-phase possession. If the Lions scrum can disrupt the likes of Ollie le Roux and Jannie du Plessis, then the Cheetahs may lose their fluidity in the back line.

In the face of this development, it will be interesting to see which counter-methods coach Rassie Erasmus chooses to employ. If the Lions dominate the Cheetahs forwards, then he may well bring Willem de Waal on to kick for territory so that the pressure can be re-applied in the lineouts. However, Le Roux, Du Plessis and hooker Jaco du Toit have performed solidly as a unit over the past few weeks, and shouldn’t in theory be upset by the Lions scrum tonight.

The Cheetahs lineout has been their best platform for attack, and returning lock Barend Pieterse will be their key man in this regard. The Lions should compete well through Anton van Zyl and Cobus Grobler who like the Cheetahs locks have been utilised effectively in setting up the maul from the lineout. The mauling in general has been exemplary from Lions (as the Sharks witnessed two weeks ago where their forwards were dominated for much of the game) and this particular strength may see them gaining some ascendancy over their Free State counterparts.

GROUND WARS

With the Springboks lacking a quality fetcher in their ranks, there has been a lot of speculation as to which current domestic player can fill the void. Despite playing off the bench for much of the season, Kabamba Floors’s name must be pretty high on that list of opensiders, as his impact in the loose has been instrumental to the Cheetahs success this season. In the absence of injured Free State captain Hendro Scholtz, he now has the opportunity to deploy his impressive fetching skills to full effect, and should play for the majority of eighty minutes.

Securing turnovers will be Floors’s aim, but opposite number Cobus Grobbelaar and flanking partner Wikus van Heerden have also been in fantastic form at the breakdown. What Floors has in his favour is his speed between the rucks and in a loose game, he could be devasting around the fringes as a ball carrier. But, if the Lions are able to slow the tempo and keep the game a little tighter, the two big Lions loose forwards may yet prevail. Van Heerden was named Man of the Match when the Lions beat the Sharks due to his magnificent work rate, and when he has an outstanding game, the rest of the forwards usually follow suit.

THE BACK THREE

Both teams have some very exciting runners at the back, and if the game breaks open their could be a lot of tries scored at Ellis Park. The Cheetahs’s Alwyn Hollenbach has won a second start for his three-try effort against the Valke last week, while Bevin Fortuin remains one of the most underrated attacking fullbacks in the South African game.

Louis Ludik has been a great find for the Lions, and has scored some exhilirating tries in this year’s Currie Cup. Earl Rose will also supply some great attacking options from the back, and will be closely monitored by the Cheetahs defence.

Tactically speaking, Cheetahs flyhalf Meyer Bosman may test Rose with a few high ones at the start, with the formidable 100kg bulk of centre Hendrik Meyer chasing through and placing the far smaller fullback under pressure. Both teams are not afraid to counter-attack, but in a such an important game the more experienced players may opt for the conservative approach and play the percentages. As previously stated, the nature of this game and the instance of free flowing rugby will greatly depend on the tussle in the forwards.

KICKING DUEL

Kicking the extra points is always going to be important in derby games such as these. If Meyer Bosman is going to stake any further claim for the Free State flyhalf jersey he will need to kick well tonight, both out of hand and for poles. Rose was wayward for the Lions in his last outing against the Sharks, and it was left to youngster Mark Harris to knock over the winning penalty from the touchline. Young Jaco van Schalkwyk has only recently been shifted to flyhalf and despite having enjoyed some success, still has some way to go in the kicking department as well.

The Lions need to win this game to stay alive while the Cheetahs will try to secure the four points and maintain their position at the top. Apart from this year’s previous result, history indicates that these games are rarely one sided, and often produce plenty of tries.

PAST 10 RESULTS:

2006: Cheetahs won 59-5 in Bloemfontein
2005: Lions won 37-36 in Johannesburg
Lions won 31-20 in Bloemfontein
2004: Cheetahs won 40-27 in Johannesburg
Cheetahs won 38-19 in Bloemfontein
2003: Cheetahs won 34-30 in Johannesburg
Lions won 40-22 in Bloemfontein
2002: Lions won 43-29 in Bloemfontein
Cheetahs won 29-22 in Bloemfontein
2001: Lions won 23-19 in Johannesburg

By Jon Cardinelli