Cheetahs focused on play-off prize

Heinrich Brüssow says it is the desire to improve rather than the threat of relegation that will motivate the Cheetahs ahead of Saturday’s clash with the Lions.

Sanzar CEO Greg Peters told this website last week that the Super Rugby format will not change until 2016, and the upshot is that Saru will need to fit six franchises into five slots from 2013 onwards. Another merger could be on the cards, or the last-placed side in 2012 could be replaced by the Kings in 2013.

Saru will announce its final decision on the matter on 31 March. In the meantime, the five South African franchises will remain in the dark. One of them could be playing in the Vodacom Cup next season, and if history is anything to go by, it could well be one of the Cheetahs or Lions.

Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske was asked the question following his side’s pre-season victory against the Stormers. He didn’t deny that the relegation option was on the table, but stressed that nothing had changed in terms of their preparation. Regardless of what is decided at the end of March, said Drotske, the Cheetahs would need to improve on their poor Super Rugby record.

As a senior member of the Cheetahs’ side, Brüssow is mindful of the pressure ahead of Saturday’s match at Ellis Park. While some will view this clash as a crucial one in the context of the relegation/promotion possibility, Brüssow sees it as an opportunity for the Cheetahs to defy tradition and start the season with a big win.

‘We’ve focused on doing well as a team and improving on our performance last year, so the relegation thing isn’t that much of a factor,’ he told keo.co.za. ‘We don’t want to play to avoid coming last or second last, we really want to concentrate on moving up in the ranks and being a side that other teams are afraid to play.

‘We’re not going to be changing our game just to ensure we will stay in the competition. Running rugby and scoring tries is always the better rugby to play. We plan on doing what has worked for us in the past.’

The Cheetahs shocked the Stormers in that pre-season match by employing a more pragmatic style. Flyhalf Johan Goosen kicked for territory and from there the Cheetahs forwards sought to overpower their opponents in order to lay a platform the backs to score.

Many northern hemisphere clubs adopt a play-not-to-lose mentality, as the threat of relegation is real. Brüssow, however, sought to dispel the belief that the Cheetahs would employ such a mindset in 2012. What the recent performance at Newlands has shown is that the Cheetahs can switch tactics when the situation demands it.

‘We had to play more conservatively against the Stormers, we know that they like to squeeze you so you can’t play too much rugby in your own half.

‘Defence was our weakness last season so that has been a big focal point in our preparation this year, and we’ve seen some good results. We have a lot of young talent coming through that did well in the 2011 Currie Cup, and there’s a lot of good competition in the team. For the first time we have a bit more depth in our team. It bodes well considering this season will be very long, and the actual competition doesn’t get any easier.’

The Cheetahs also showed terrific composure in that Newlands clash, closing out a tight contest with some excellent option-taking and execution. Whether they can do this in the competition proper remains to be seen.

The central franchise traditionally loses six or seven Super Rugby games by tight margins every season, a fact that highlights a lack of mettle in the testing final stages. They lost the 2011 clash at Ellis Park in such fashion, and are determined to make amends in this year’s fixture.

Brüssow expects nothing less than a physical clash, and a fair bit of desperation from both sides. He maintains that future involvement in the competition is not a motivator, and that the Cheetahs are focused on beginning the season with a victory.

‘The first game of the season is always tough, because both teams have all of their players available, everybody is fresh and keen to win,’ he said.

‘It’s important that we start the competition well, as it has been a problem for us in the past. We’ve lost two or three matches at the start of the past couple of seasons, and what that has done is place us under a lot of pressure as the season has progressed. We have to play good rugby from the beginning and win
the close games if we are going to realise our goals.’

By Jon Cardinelli