Before the start of Super Rugby 2016 we take a closer look at each of the sides in the competition. Next up, the Cheetahs.
The Bloemfontein-based outfit have had mixed fortunes in this tournament in recent years with a sixth place finish and play-off place in 2013, followed up with below par efforts in 2014 and and 2015 when they finished 14th and 12th in the overall standings respectively.
Head coach Franco Smith is highly rated in South Africa but will be under pressure to deliver the goods, as several high profile players have moved on to greener pastures during the off season.
Last Year: Although they finished amongst the tournament’s also-rans, 2015 marked the end of an era for the Cheetahs as they parted ways with their long-serving coach Naka Drotske before the end of the season.
They started their campaign with a memorable away win over the Sharks before beating the Blues in Bloemfontein. That was followed by home defeats to the Bulls and Sharks before they lost three more matches on their Australasian tour against the Crusaders, Chiefs and Brumbies. But they bounced back with a triumph over the Force in their final match overseas.
The Cheetahs managed just two more wins – against the Stormers and Bulls – from their remaining eight fixtures, with Smith taking over the coaching reins from Drotske with two rounds of matches left before the end of the regular season.
This Year: The Cheetahs will compete against the Bulls, Stormers, and Sunwolves in the Africa One Conference.
With the tournament being restructured it means the men from Bloemfontein will not play any matches in New Zealand during 2016 – something for the Cheetahs to be happy about as the Kiwi teams have dominated this competition in recent years.
They kick off their campaign with two home matches – against the Jaguares and Stormers – and from their next four matches only one will be at home before their first bye in Round 7.
After that bye, they take on the Sunwolves in Bloemfontein before embarking on a three-week tour to Australia where they take on the Rebels, Reds and Waratahs. How they fare in those matches should prove pivotal as all their remaining fixtures upon their return will be in South Africa.
Key Players: Despite missing most of the 2015 Super Rugby tournament with a broken arm, lock Lood de Jager was one of the Springboks’ standout performers at last year’s Rugby World Cup. De Jager’s efforts on the game’s biggest stage mean he is now renowned as one of the world’s leading second rows, and if he can continue with his fine form and inspire those around him, then the Cheetahs could surprise some teams.
Another player will be keen to do well is fly-half Sias Ebersohn, who returns to the Cheetahs after playing for the Western Force for the past three seasons. Ebersohn is a confidence player who, when on song, can dominate matches. That hasn’t happened much in recent years though and he will have a point to prove this season.
Players to Watch: All eyes will be on promising centre Francois Venter who has been entrusted with the captaincy for 2016. Venter was one of the Cheetahs’ star performers in 2015 and will be required to continue that form with the likes of Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Cornal Hendricks and Sarel Pretorius no longer in their ranks. Venter will be expected to lead the attack and it will be interesting to see how he performs with the burden of the captaincy resting on his shoulders.
The Cheetahs’ have won over many fans in recent years with their attacking brand of rugby and their ability to unearth talented players. One player who has caught the eye during that time is Raymond Rhule, one of the quickest players in South Africa and a superb finisher out on the wing. Rhule was a tourist with the Springboks during their end-of-year tour in 2012 – without getting any game-time – and will be determined to reach the same form from that year this season.
Prospects: Having lost the services of several top quality players, the Cheetahs aren’t expected to be amongst the tournament’s frontrunners. Another season of mediocrity beckons even under a new coaching staff.
Players In: Fred Zeilinga (Sharks), Sias Ebersohn (Force), Neil Rautenbach (Stormers), Paul Schoeman (Kings), William Small-Smith (Bulls), Aranos Coetzee (Brive)
Players Out: Johann Sadie (Agen), Francois Brummer (Pumas), Willie du Plessis (Toulon), Sarel Pretorius (Dragons), Elgar Watts (Kings), Steven Sykes (Kings), Coenie Oosthuizen (Sharks), Cornal Hendricks (Stormers), Joe Pietersen (Sharks), Willie le Roux (Sharks), Heinrich Brüssow (NTT Docomo), Stephan Coetzee (Griquas), Carel Greeff (Kings), Caylib Oosthuizen (Kings), Jean Cook (Zebre), Ewald van der Westhuizen (Griquas), Danie Dames (released)
Friday, 26 February v Jaguars (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, 5 March v Stormers (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, 12 March v Sunwolves (Singapore National Stadium)
Saturday, 19 March v Lions (Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg)
Saturday, 26 March v Brumbies (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, 2 April v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria)
Round 7: BYE
Friday, 15 April v Sunwolves (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Friday, 22 April v Rebels (AAMI Park, Melbourne)
Saturday, 30 April v Reds ((Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane)
Saturday, 7 May v Waratahs (Allianz Stadium, Sydney)
Saturday, 14 May v Kings (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Round 13: BYE
Saturday, 28 May v Stormers (Newlands Stadium, Cape Town)
Saturday, 2 July v Western Force (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, 9 July v Sharks (Kings Park Stadium, Durban)
Saturday, 16 July v Bulls (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)