Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske said this week that his team will attack the Hurricanes through the scrum and rolling maul, but it is the home side’s defence that will be the critical factor when the two teams meet in their Vodacom SuperRugby match in Bloemfontein on Friday night.
The Cheetahs – who at the start of the season were considered to be the only other real candidates alongside the Southern Kings for the promotion/relegation match – have a real chance of winning the South African Conference with four home games, visits to Port Elizabeth and Cape Town and a bye remaining in their regular season.
And it is because their defence has been so much better this year that they still have a say in the title race, conceding just 19 tries in 10 matches, which is second-best among the South African teams, equal with the Sharks.
Dominating the scrums and pushing the Hurricanes back with rolling mauls, even winning the territorial kicking battle, won’t win the Cheetahs the match. It is their defence and how well they frustrate the visitors, how many mistakes they can force them into, which will decide the outcome.
Although Drotske also said this week that the Hurricanes won’t try and run the ball from their own 22 like they did last weekend with disastrous consequences against the Bulls, they are a team that loves to attack with ball in hand and, if the only opportunities they get come from ball deep inside their own half, then they are bound to try it again.
That’s how the Bulls came away with the loot last weekend: forcing the Hurricanes into playing their game from bad positions and ensuring their offensive defence exposed them to turnover tries and penalties.
The Bulls have a bye this weekend and it is important for the Cheetahs to win and keep in touch with the Conference leaders.
For the Stormers, on the other hand, victory in Sydney against the Waratahs is imperative because they are already eight points behind the Bulls, who get four more points from the Sanzar wise men for doing nothing this weekend.
The Stormers have been under pressure the whole season and the cracks are showing. The Sanzar disciplinary council is investigating alleged abuse of officials by their sideline management during their win over the Hurricanes in Wellington on 26 April and last weekend they dominated almost all facets against the Blues, but still ended up on the losing side.
The Waratahs, with their pack of eight Wallabies and lethal attackers out wide in Israel Folau, Peter Betham and Adam Ashley-Cooper, have the resources to punish the Stormers for any mistakes.
A lot of those mistakes – poor tactical kicking, a lack of vision on attack and bad discipline at the rucks were all in evidence in Auckland last weekend – are caused by pressure.
The Stormers will have to be at their best, 100% focused and efficient in their execution, if they are to beat the Waratahs.
Jean de Villiers’s team can also do with the New South Welshmen suffering from some travel fatigue after flying back from South Africa this week.
The same pressure is on the Sharks, with the additional burden of a terrible injury list, as they face the Reds in Brisbane, and those same mistakes have been evident as an unfocused team has sunk to four straight defeats.
The Sharks have only won eight out of 29 matches in Australia, but those stats don’t reveal that they beat the Reds in Brisbane in last year’s playoffs, against great odds, and hammered them 59-16 there in 2007.
In tough times, rugby teams tend to look inward and play for each other, and Sharks coach John Plumtree is hoping that’s exactly what will happen as last year’s finalists battle to stay alive in the competition.
“We want to take the pressure off, play for each other, play for the jersey, that’s important. We’re in a different set of circumstances with the team because of the fact that we have so many guys out, we just have to put our heads together. We’ve sent four-to-five guys home and we are only halfway through the tour. We’ve had to change personnel, we’ve had to play players out of position and that is not great,” Plumtree said.
Springbok wing JP Pietersen is one of those players out of position as he shifts into midfield to replace Francois Steyn, who is out for the rest of the campaign, while Jean Deysel is back in the loose trio. Former Lions captain JC Janse van Rensburg makes his first start in the front row.
On paper, the Sharks certainly have enough power in their pack – with the added boost of Willem Alberts coming off the bench – and enough skill all round to beat the Reds, who will be without their indisposed captain and lock, the inspirational James Horwill. But what really matters is what frame of mind the Sharks are in after all their travails.
The Southern Kings are playing host to overseas visitors again on Saturday and will hopefully not be as gracious as they were last weekend to the Waratahs. The Australians had just come from Tshwane with their tails between their legs after a 30-19 loss to the Bulls, but the Kings opened their defensive lines and allowed them to help themselves to 11 tries in a morale-boosting 72-10 win.
The Highlanders visit this weekend and they have already been boosted by their victory over the Sharks in Dunedin last weekend, their first of the season. And they boast way more quality in their side than their recent record suggests.
Saturday’s match at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is the Kings’ last before the bye and, having looked in a state of near-exhaustion last weekend, they will need one final big push to ensure they don’t get humiliated again.
One of the men who has really given them steel and purpose this season, loose forward Jacques Engelbrecht, is out injured and lightning-fast wing Sergeal Petersen is away with the SA U20 team preparing for the Junior World Championship.
Luke Watson returns as starting flank and captain, and a tired team, after 10 straight matches, could really do with some inspiration from him.
The Highlanders are now just one point behind the Kings on the log and Saturday’s encounter could decide the wooden spoon, which the Eastern Cape team have done heck of a well to avoid up till now.
But if they err in defence like they did last weekend, then the Highlanders have the players to cut them to shreds in Aaron and Ben Smith, Hosea Gear, Tamati Ellison and Colin Slade.
It will be the likes of All Blacks Mose Tuiali’i, Brad Thorn, Andrew Hore and Tony Woodcock who will lay the platform up front for the visitors.
The Sharks (v Reds, Friday 11:40): Riaan Viljoen, Piet Lindeque, JP Pietersen, Meyer Bosman, Lwazi Mvovo, Pat Lambie, Charl McLeod, Keegan Daniel, Jean Deysel, Marcell Coetzee, Franco van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Wiehahn Herbst, Kyle Cooper, JC Janse van Rensburg. Replacements: Monde Hadebe, Jannie du Plessis, Anton Bresler, Derick Minnie, Willem Alberts, Tian Meyer, Odwa Ndungane.
Cheetahs (v Hurricanes, Friday 19:10): Hennie Daniller, Willie le Roux, Johann Sadie, Robert Ebersohn, Raymond Rhule, Burton Francis, Piet van Zyl, Phillip van der Walt, Frans Viljoen, Heinrich Brüssow, Francois Uys, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse, Adriaan Strauss, Coenie Oosthuizen. Replacements: Ryno Barnes, Trevor Nyakane, Ligtoring Landman, Boom Prinsloo, Sarel Pretorius, Elgar Watts, Ryno Benjamin.
Stormers (v Waratahs, Saturday, 11:40): Joe Pietersen, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh, Jean de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Gary van Aswegen, Dewaldt Duvenage, Duane Vermeulen, Rynhardt Elstadt, Siya Kolisi, Andries Bekker, Eben Etzebeth, Frans Malherbe, Deon Fourie, Steven Kitshoff. Replacements: Scarra Ntubeni, Pat Cilliers, Don Armand, Nizaam Carr, Louis Schreuder, Elton Jantjies, Gerhard van den Heever.
Southern Kings (v Highlanders, Saturday 17:05): George Whitehead, Marcello Sampson, Ronnie Cooke, Andries Strauss, Siyanda Grey, Demetri Catrakilis, Shaun Venter, Cornell du Preez, Luke Watson, Wimpie van der Walt, David Bulbring, Steven Sykes, Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku, Schalk Ferreira. Replacements: Virgile Lacombe, Grant Kemp, Daniel Adongo, Devin Oosthuizen, Nicolas Vergallo, Shane Gates, SP Marais.
Other fixtures: Chiefs v Force (Friday 9:35); Blues v Rebels (Saturday, 11:40).
Byes: Bulls, Crusaders, Brumbies.