Ahead of the 2017 Super Rugby season we take a closer look at each of the 18 teams participating. Next up, the Cheetahs.
There's plenty of expectation and excitement in the Bloemfontein-based outfit's ranks after a stellar 2016 Currie Cup campaign. Under the guidance of head coach Franco Smith, they lit up that tournament and finished as champions with an unbeaten record to boot.
Carrying their domestic form over to Super Rugby level is of course easier said than done and although they were amongst the basement dwellers in recent seasons, they will be hoping to emulate their 2013 campaign when they bowed out in the play-offs.
Last Year: 2016 was a year to forget for the Cheetahs as they only managed to win four out of their 15 matches. They finished in 14th position in the overall standings and third out of four teams on the Africa 1 Conference table with 21 points from 15 matches – a whopping 30 points behind eventual conference winners the Stormers.
Their campaign started with back-to-back home defeats to the Jaguares (34-33) and Stormers (20-10) before they claimed a narrow win over the Sunwolves (32-31) in Singapore.
They followed that up with successive losses to the Lions (39-22), Brumbies (25-18) and Bulls (23-18) before notching their biggest ever victory in Super Rugby when they beat the Sunwolves (92-17) in Round 8.
The rest of the competition was a long slog for Smith and his charges and they lost their next three matches – all on their Australian tour – to the Rebels (36-14), Reds (30-14) and Waratahs (21-6), before returning to the victory trail at home against the Kings (34-20).
They then headed to Cape Town and delivered a competitive performance in a loss to the Stormers (30-24) but bounced back with a win in Bloemfontein against the Force (30-29). That would be their last victory as they suffered defeats to the Sharks (26-10) in Durban and Bulls (43-17) in Bloemfontein in their final fixtures.
This Year: Like last year, the Cheetahs are drawn in the Africa 1 Conference alongside the Stormers, Bulls and Sunwolves. They start their campaign with three successive home matches – against the Lions, Bulls and Sunwolves – before heading to Buenos Aires to take on the Jaguares.
Being successful at home will be important if they want to reach the play-offs and from their next two matches, they face the Sharks and Chiefs in Bloemfontein with a trip to Cape Town, to face the Stormers, in the middle of those two fixtures in Round 6.
After that clash with the Chiefs, the head to Pretoria to take on the Bulls and then face the Crusaders and Highlanders on successive weekends in Bloemfontein. If they managed good start, then winning two of those three latter fixtures could prove crucial if they still want to make the qualifiers as they then head over to New Zealand where they face tough assignments against Blues and Hurricanes.
They then take on the Sunwolves in Tokyo in their last fixture before the break for the June international and upon their return to action they host the Stormers in Round 15 before finishing off their campaign against the Kings in Port Elizabeth on July 14.
Key players: After being one of the finds of 2016, blindside flanker Uzair Cassiem will be expected to lead the charge up front. Cassiem's high work-rate and impressive skillset made him one of the first names on head coach Franco Smith's teamsheet in 2016 and his superb form in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup was rewarded with a Springbok Test debut against Wales during last year's end-of-year tour.
Captain and centre Francois Venter will miss the opening rounds of the tournament due to an ankle injury but is expected to make a big contribution when he is fit. Another player who received a Bok call-up, after playing consistently well last season, Venter's ability to straighten the line at pace and his impressive leadership are his main strengths and Cheetahs fans will be hoping he makes a speedy recovery.
Much will also depend on the form of first-choice fly-half Niel Marais who was one of the stars of their succesful Currie Cup campaign. The burly 25-year-old is highly underrated but delivered some impressive performances in Super Rugby last year and will be hoping to kick on in 2017.
Players to watch: Several players came to the fore during the Cheetahs' victorious Currie Cup campaign and will be eager to build on their form from that tournament in Super Rugby. One player who did impress at Super Rugby level last year is Sergeal Petersen. The flyer was brilliant with ball in hand and finished with nine tries in 2016.
Another player who did well in 2016 is Clayton Blommetjies, who is a superb counter-attacking full-back, while amongst the forwards, keep an eye on Retshegofaditswe 'Ox' Nché. Nché is the prototype of the modern day prop. He is mobile but also shines at his core duties and was crowned Currie Cup Player of the Year in 2016.
Prospects: If the Cheetahs want to be competitive, it is imperative for them to win their home matches at least. The draw has been kind to them as five out of their first seven matches are in Bloemfontein and they face the bulk of the New Zealand sides – who usually dominate this competition – later on. Although they should be more competitive than last year, they are set to just miss out on the play-offs.
Players In: Tom Botha (Kings), Junior Pokomela (Kings), Ryno Eksteen (Stormers), Clinton Swart (Griquas), Elrich de Jager (Free State XV), Günther Janse van Vuuren (Free State XV), Reinach Venter (Free State XV), Ntokoza Vidima (Free State XV), Fiffy Rampeta (Free State XV), Jasper Wiese (Free State XV), Ali Mgijima (Free State XV), Mosolwa Mafuma (Free State XV)
Players Out: Lood de Jager (Bulls), Neil Rautenbach (Western Province), Boela Serfontein (Griffons), Willie Britz (Sunwolves), Sias Ebersohn (Pumas), George Whitehead (Griquas), Coenie van Wyk (Toshiba Brave Lupus)
Saturday, February 25 v Lions (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, March 4 v Bulls (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, March 11 v Sunwolves (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, March 18 v Jaguares (Vélez Sarsfield, Buenos Aires)
Saturday, March 25 v Sharks (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, April 1 v Stormers (Newlands, Cape Town)
Round 7: BYE
Saturday, April 15 v Chiefs (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Saturday, April 22 v Bulls (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Saturday, April 29 v Crusaders (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Friday, May 5 v Highlanders (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Friday, May 12 v Blues (tbc)
Saturday, May 20 v Hurricanes (tbc)
Saturday, May 27 v Sunwolves (Prince Chichibu Memorial Stadium, Tokyo)
Saturday, July 1 v Stormers (Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein)
Round 16: BYE
Friday, July 14 v Kings (Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth)