As the Cheetahs prepare for their first Super Rugby play-off match, we contemplate their rise and its impact on South African rugby.
As the Cheetahs prepare for the first Super Rugby play-off match in their history, we contemplate the rise of the Bloemfontein-based franchise and its impact on South African rugby.
The Free State region of South Africa has long been famed for producing quality rugby players, with Grey College responsible for schooling the second most Springboks in South Africa's history. This dominance at school level is translated at junior provincial rugby where the Free State have won four of the last ten Craven Week competitions and have been runners-up on two further occasions.
However, for a long period the success of the region has ended there. This trend is changing though and there are two key points to consider as to why this is the case.
The first can be found in the strong base which the Cheetahs have formed and are now sustaining through the retention of international calibre players.
Of the last 100 players to be capped by the Springboks, 19 were attached to the Cheetahs at the time of their selection. Of the first 50, eight were from the Cheetahs. Only two of those players – Bevan Fortuin and Kabamba Floors, who with all due respect were hardly world beaters – remained with the union. Indeed, Jannie du Plessis, Gurthro Steenkamp, Gerrie Britz and Hanyani Shimange moved to 'bigger' franchises just months after making the step up to international rugby.
A look at the most recently capped players makes for quite different reading.
Of the last eleven Cheetahs to run out for the Springboks, only one – Bjorn Basson – moved to another franchise while Wian du Preez and Ashley Johnson headed overseas.
Crucially, Springbok vice-captain Adriaan Strauss has long stated his commitment to the Cheetahs as has Heinrich Brussow, who may not be a favourite of Heyneke Meyer at present but at one time was hot property.
This trend has now been followed with two of the Springbok class of 2013, Willie le Roux and Trevor Nyakane, signing new deals despite interest from some of the country's big guns.
It's a player like Le Roux that brings us to the next point – the brand of rugby that the Cheetahs play.
For many South African fans the Cheetahs are strongly positioned as their 'second team' because for the neutral, Naka Drotske's side are certainly entertaining to watch. Long bored by the forward dominated, defence minded rugby played by other franchises, the attacking, open nature with which the Cheetahs play is a joy to watch – and it's become effective.
What's more, the likes of Le Roux have been given the chance to express their attacking flair for the national side and one only had to watch the June internationals to see what an impact he had on proceedings.
In addition, a player like Johann Sadie, whose exit from Western Province was heavily bemoaned before all confidence was battered out of him at the Bulls, is thriving with the freedom that has now been provided with.
The Cheetahs are unlikely to win this year's competition, with the fairytale perhaps set to end in Canberra on Sunday, but regardless, their impact has been felt both in the competition and on the national scene.
Without getting too carried away with the romanticism of the team's rise, it's quite possible that should they continue on this upward trend, the Cheetahs may become a strong force in South African rugby for years to come.