No replacing Smith

The Cheetahs could struggle to match the physicality of the Chiefs without Juan Smith’s unique abrasive qualities.

The central franchise begin their Australasian tour without three members of their squad, with Smith, Jacques-Louis Potgieter and Gavin Passens left at home because of injuries. Smith is far and above the biggest loss, not just for his inspirational leadership, but for his talent as a player.

Bryan Habana was awarded the 2007 IRB Player of the Year accolade but many critics believed Smith, playing in the unglamorous position of blindside flank, was the true hero behind the Boks’ World Cup victory. Smith has become everything coaches look for in a loose forward. He’s uncompromising on defence, secure and determined with ball in hand, and is a world-class line-out option.

Needless to say, the Cheetahs skipper is a few cuts above anybody else at his franchise. In 2006, then Bok coach Jake White lamented the injury of Schalk Burger as in White’s mind, the dynamic opensider fulfilled the duties of three loose forwards. The same is true of Smith and Naka Drotske’s difficult campaign just became significantly tougher with the skipper sidelined for four weeks.

The back row of the Cheetahs shows so much promise, but lack sufficient exposure at this level to be a real threat. It has to be said Chiefs coach Ian Foster has made an interesting decision to leave Liam Messam and Tanerau Latimer on the bench, with Faifili Levave and Tom Harding starting at blindside and openside respectively. This indicates Foster expects a massive challenge up front in the first half. When the Cheetahs are blowing in the second half, the more athletic skills of Messam and Latimer will be maximised.

Heinrich Brussouw and Duanne Vermeulen have stood up well in the early rounds, but the biggest challenge will fall to Smith’s replacement at No 7, Darron Nell. Nell was used effectively as a No 8 in the Currie Cup, but is best utilised as lock-cum-flank in the Super 14. Although he does not boast the edge and execution of Smith, he will ensure the Cheetahs are physical at the breakdown initially.

Drotske employed a similar game plan to Foster’s in the 2007 Currie Cup, but is without the luxury of Kabamba Floors for this match. Assistant coach Hawies Fourie told this website the super-sub is suffering from a stiff neck after scoring a try against the Blues last week. The Cheetahs are fortunate to have Hendro Scholtz back on the bench, himself a Springbok, but just as Nell is no Smith, Scholtz is no Floors and the Cheetahs will miss the blond flanker’s energy at the rucks in the final quarter.

The return of Barend Pieterse will be a big boost to the Cheetahs line-out, which struggled against the Blues. The Chiefs are without skipper Jonno Gibbes and now Kristian Ormsby has joined their ever-increasing injured contingent. Although Smith will be missed in the line-out, Rory Duncan and Pieterse are well established jumpers while Nell is no slouch himself.

The performance of the Cheetahs tight five is going to be crucial, not just in the set phases, but around the park as well. Adriaan Strauss is an industrious player, but Wian du Preez and Kobus Calldo will need to step up in the loose if the visitors are to have any hope of establishing breakdown ascendancy.

All signs point to a belligerent battle up front in the first half, and despite their previous inclinations, the Cheetahs may do well to keep it tight for the full 80 on this occasion.

By Jon Cardinelli