Naka Drotske believes the Cheetahs finally have the personnel to win tight games and challenge for a play-off place.
Since the Cheetahs split from the Lions to form their own franchise in 2006, they have not finished higher than 10th on the Super Rugby log. Former coach Rassie Erasmus and current mentor Drotske have often lamented the Cheetahs’ poor composure in the final minutes of close games, and how the loss of five or six tight matches over the course of a season has contributed to their low finish on the table.
Not much stock can be placed in pre-season results, but Drotske admitted to being more than just a little excited following last Saturday’s win against the Stormers at Newlands. The Cheetahs dominated for large parts of the contest and, almost uncharacteristically, stuck to their game plan and showed the necessary composure to win.
‘Tactically, we played very well,’ Drotske said. ‘Last year, we lost a number of matches by tight margins, the fact that we couldn’t finish cost us dearly. But that performance [on Saturday against the Stormers] shows we are starting to get things right.’
The Cheetahs impressed on attack in 2011 but the good work was largely undone by poor defence. Drotske said they aimed to employ a more balanced approach in 2012, and that the structures have been put in place in the pre-season.
The Cheetahs competed well at the breakdown and dominated at the lineout, but the highlight of the performance was the decision making at No 9 and 10 as well as the tactical kicking. The defence was also much improved, as the intensity of the forwards and rush of the line defence combined well to stifle and frustrate the Stormers’ attack.
Wing Rocco Jansen showed good pace to finish his try which was created by a brilliant Piet van Zyl inside pass. Johan Goosen also starred with 14 points although it was more than a flawless goal-kicking display that marked his fine performance. He threatened the gain-line consistently, but only once he and the other Cheetahs’ kickers had booted their team into good field positions.
‘We knew that we shouldn’t play too much rugby in our own half, but the execution of the tactical kicking was very good,’ said Drotske. ‘Johan is a talented kid, and we are fortunate to have two great 10s in Johan and Sias Ebersohn as well as a [utility] player like Willie le Roux.
‘It was a blow to lose Sarel Pretorius [to the Waratahs] and Riaan Viljoen [to the Sharks]. They played a big role in our attack. But it’s been great to see the youngsters coming through. Rocco has added something extra from the wing and Johan has brought a new dimension to the backline in the flyhalf position.’
The Cheetahs will need to maintain this kind of form throughout the season if they hope to challenge for a play-off place. More importantly, they will have to win consistently to guarantee their continued involvement in Super Rugby.
The only South African franchise that is guaranteed a place in next year’s tournament is the Southern Kings, as Saru and Sanzar are yet to decide on the format or if six SA franchises can indeed be accommodated.
It could be that the worst-placed team in 2012 is relegated, and Drotske said this possibility places every team in the country under pressure.
‘Nobody except the Kings are guaranteed a place, so everybody will be feeling the pressure,’ he said. ‘We don’t know the criteria at this point, but it will be an important season for everybody.’
The Cheetahs open their campaign with a South African derby against the Lions on 25 February. It will be a massive match in the context of the 2013 format, as while both the Cheetahs and Lions have struggled as separate entities, a win for either side in the Round 1 ‘catfight’ could strengthen their case for continued involvement in the competition.
By Jon Cardinelli