Cheetahs’ familiar slide begins

The Cheetahs will battle to avoid the Super 14 wooden spoon in 2009.

In past seasons, the Cheetahs have managed to avoid footing the Super 14 table thanks primarily to their enterprising attack. Their defence has been a constant disappointment in this tournament, and given their good try-scoring record in 2008 it’s not hard to understand why the management pointed to defence as their most costly shortcoming.

2009 has witnessed an equally disappointing display on attack and defence. They’ve conceded eight tries in three matches while they’ve only scored four of their own, an alarming statistic considering their first three outings were against mid-to-bottom-table regulars the Lions, Force and Reds.

News that Juan Smith is out of the tour with concussion has also robbed them of an inspirational captain and talismanic player. It’s hardly surprising to see Naka Drotske flying the white flag earlier than usual. As seen in previous campaigns, when Smith is injured, the Cheetahs are headed only one way. Considering they’re already rooted to the bottom, one wonders how low they could actually sink.

Drotske has made 10 changes for this Saturday’s clash with the Hurricanes. The Cheetahs coach will argue that his frontline players need a break, and he will admit they have not targeted a fixture against last year’s semi-finalists as one they can win. Drotske employed a similar tactic last year when the Cheetahs played the Crusaders. After losing a narrow game against the Chiefs, Drotske played a B side against the Crusaders that was duly smashed 55-7 in Christchurch.

The Cheetahs’ best team can’t beat the Hurricanes. Drotske may feel he is doing his fringe players a favour by giving them a run, but what youngster would fancy a crack at the Hurricanes when their team is already on a hiding to nothing.

Last year the Cheetahs targeted an eighth place finish but in 2009 they’d be extremely lucky to avoid the wooden spoon. Drotske spoke about the first match against the Lions as season-defining. The Cheetahs lost and that’s all but decided their final standing. The big question is whether they’ll win a game, because at the moment they don’t seem to have a clue on how to hold on to the ball, how to mark a man out wide or how to close out a tight match.

Drotske has already lost Smith and wants to avoid injuries to other big names like Heinrich Brussow and Meyer Bosman. But players like Bosman should be playing if Drotske is serious about development. As a revitalised flyhalf, Bosman needs game time, but the development of the 10-12 combination with Jacques-Louis Potgieter is equally crucial if management want them to forge a long-term partnership.

The youngsters will gain some valuable losing experience at the weekend. Drotske is aiming for damage control in terms of the bigger Super 14 picture, and may have already written this tour off with games against the Blues and Highlanders to come. Bonus points will be the aim in the latter two fixtures, while home games will be targeted for wins.

But when you have to play the Brumbies, Sharks, Chiefs, Crusaders, Waratahs and Stormers with a team devoid of depth and quality, and having lost every match previously, you are always going to struggle. The familiar slide to the Super 14 depths has begun.

By Jon Cardinelli