Cheetahs need defensive rethink

JON CARDINELLI says the Cheetahs will never climb out of the Super Rugby basement until they address their detrimental defence.

Ollie le Roux was in the news this week for criticising the Cheetahs’ defence. Tired of the same old excuses, Le Roux said that little has changed since his playing days, and that the defensive systems favoured in Bloemfontein are outdated.

Coach Naka Drotske fired back with what he probably feels is a riposte. Drotske told Le Roux to concentrate on his own coaching duties at Bloemfontein Police. Drotske maintains the Cheetahs’ defence is in good shape.

Oh Naka. How do you even begin to defend the indefensible?

With one win in two years, the Lions are the running joke of South African rugby. A substantial cash injection and the recruitment of John Mitchell has done little to change the fact. They were the worst defensive side in history in 2010, and have been poor in this department in 2011. Their composure has also been exceedingly disappointing.

Can we compare the Lions to the Cheetahs? There’s the argument that the Cheetahs are South Africa’s paupers, and cannot afford to keep key players nor attract big names to Bloemfontein. But consider the two records at this stage of the 2011 competition, and it’s clear that they do have something in common: Poor defence.

The Melbourne Rebels (31) have leaked the most tries to date, with the Lions tied at second worst with the Force (21). The Cheetahs are only marginally better with 20 in their tries against column.

It’s also interesting that Drotske has chosen this week to commend the Cheetahs’ defence. They will host the Hurricanes this Saturday, and while the Wellington outfit is out of sorts, history will show that the Cheetahs are cannon fodder for New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams.

Since Drotske became coach in 2008, the Cheetahs have won just two out of the 17 matches played against Kiwi opposition. They’ve conceded a total of 75 tries (at an average of 4.4 per game), and conceded the four-try bonus on 10 occasions.

The Cheetahs have played their part in many a try-fest, but have very rarely ended up on the right side of the result. The Blues, Chiefs and Hurricanes are all renowned for a high-paced, and somewhat risky approach. They avoid the slow, grinding game at the coalface, preferring to attack the opposition’s midfield, and as the game opens up, their powerfully-built speedsters come into their own.

Drotske may argue that individual errors are a problem, but there’s no getting around the fact that defence is the issue. Most view them as a brave team that never gives up, and admire them for their attacking flair. They’ve come close to upsetting a few teams this season, but in most cases, the defensive lapses early in the game have ultimately proved the difference. They have the firepower to score tries late in the game, but for some reason, they don’t have the defence to prevent the opposition scoring five-pointers early on.

When the Cheetahs get it right on attack, they can be a joy to watch. But it seems that too much has been invested in one side of the game, and not enough in the other. It’s self-defeating. Scoring tries doesn’t count for much if you’re conceding them at the other end.

Nothing has changed from a performance perspective, and as long as the Cheetahs remain in the bottom four, there isn’t a valid argument to the contrary. They need to fix their defensive frailties if they are ever going to be considered as mid-table contenders let alone play-off hopefuls.

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