The Cheetahs’ claiming of a first-ever Australian scalp will require a remarkable improvement on defence.
The central franchise are yet to record a win in Australia, and in all 13 Australasian tour matches have only managed one solitary victory. They scored that win in their first visit to Australasia back in 1997 where they thrashed the Highlanders 49-18.
That was 12 long years ago. Granted, the Cheetahs are only heading into their fifth season as an independent franchise, but since 2006 they have returned from three tours without a win. Should they fail to start well in Perth this Friday, it could be the start of yet another slippery slide towards yet another joyless sojourn.
Naka Drotske has made two changes to the side that lost to the Lions last weekend. Jongi Nokwe is unavailable due to injury but Bjorn Basson has been axed after an ordinary defensive display in Johannesburg. The Cheetahs will be further disrupted by Corne Uys ‘s concussion. Piet van Zyl will plug the midfield gap, but it doesn’t help to settle a side that are desperate for a win.
The Cheetahs have struggled defensively in recent years, especially in the midfield area and out wide. Saturday was a clear example where the opposition were afforded too much space in the wider channels. The Lions loose forwards set their targets off the set-pieces in order to suck in defenders, and their backs found it all to easy to breach the gain line.
Drotske’s charges front the Force on Friday, a team packed with smart steppers and robust back-rowers. It goes without saying that Matt Giteau is the danger man. Although the Force lost to the Blues last week, Giteau produced a few moments of magic where he either jinked his way past a would-be tackler or produced an impossible offload to ensure the attacking move never lost momentum. To say the Cheetahs need to cut down his space is a massive understatement.
The new combination of Jacques-Louis Potgieter and Piet van Zyl are up against two more Wallabies in James O’ Connor and Ryan Cross. Cross is a known threat and the 18-year-old O’Connor has acquried a big reputation in a short space of time.
While the kid has shown his talent on attack, the Cheetahs would be foolish not to apply the pressure in his channel in order to exploit his inexperience. Giteau is no slouch on defence, but together with O’Connor the Force 10-12 channel is short on kilos. Expect the likes of Juan Smith and Frans Viljoen to bullock up that alley at the Subiaco Oval. Whether the Cheetahs can finish after obtaining that kind of platform is another story.
They missed winger Jongi Nokwe’s brilliance last week, but Fabian Juries is not the worst replacement. While Basson was found out on defence, he also didn’t offer much on attack. Juries, on the other hand, was prominent in two of the Cheetahs’ tries and will ask questions of the Force defence this Friday.
But for the Cheetahs, it all comes back to their own defensive effort. As seen in 2008, a strong attack is quickly nullified by a weak defence. Drotske and company will remember the Blues match last year where the Cheetahs scored four tries but conceded 50 points
The Cheetahs have an easier start to their tour in that they play the two bottom-rated Australian sides before heading to New Zealand. However, failure in Perth and Brisbane on a defensive level will serve as a precursor to another winless tour for the men in orange.
By Jon Cardinelli