All eyes will be on the Cheetahs this Sunday in their Vodacom SuperRugby qualifying playoff against the Brumbies in Canberra. Poor weather notwithstanding, the Cheetahs may have to rely on other team members to win this game.
The likes of Willie le Roux and Piet van Zyl have stolen the limelight as far as the Cheetahs go this season. But front-rankers like Coenie Oosthuizen and Lourens Adriaanse and new Springbok Trevor Nyakane, and locks Lood de Jager and Ligtoring Landman could have more impact on their Vodacom SuperRugby qualifying playoff against the Brumbies.
Much has been made of the Cheetahs supposedly being the most flamboyant of sides and playing the most running rugby of the South African sides, but coach Naka Drotské has put their best season ever down to improved defence and greater experience.
Brumbies coach Jake White is not buying the popular view of the South African side either.
“There’s this perception, it is funny how it works, that certain teams score a lot of tries and they run from everywhere,” said White.
“It’s not the case at all. I think the Cheetahs are probably one of the most conservative teams in the competition. They kick a lot, they let you play in your own half, and if you make a mistake then they pounce.”
White’s strategy to nullify the Cheetahs will be simple: he will be searching for momentum and front-foot ball and will want to dominate the collisions. But for that to happen, the Brumbies will have to secure good ball from the set-pieces and this is where a window of opportunity presents itself for the Cheetahs.
Oosthuizen and Nyakane both played for the Springboks this year and Adriaanse was an unused squad member, so the Cheetahs scrum should provide a stern test for the Brumbies. They will rely heavily on the experience of their tighthead, Ben Alexander, and hooker Stephen Moore, who have played 51 and 79 times respectively for the Wallabies.
The lineouts also provide a key area for the teams to launch from and De Jager, one of the finds of the season, and Landman, the admirable journeyman, will back themselves against Scott Fardy and Sam Carter.
The Cheetahs hid away at Coogee Beach outside Sydney for the build-up to the game and the ice-cold weather in Canberra, with even the possibility of snow being mentioned in the Australian capital, would have been something of a shock for them.
But they are expecting a hot reception on Sunday morning and the violence of the collisions will not be for the faint-hearted.
Since the start of the season, their loose trio of Lappies Labuschagne, Philip van der Walt and Heinrich Brüssow have been outstanding and they will also be key figures in Sunday’s knockout match.
The Brumbies have not made the SuperRugby playoffs since winning the competition in 2004, but the presence of George Smith in their line-up provides a link to their glory days.
The fetcher flank has not always been a favourite of White, the coach who took the Springboks to World Cup glory in 2007, but the clash between Smith and Brüssow will be one of the features of the game.
The openside flanks do also, however, rely on their fellow forwards providing front-foot ball or stopping opponents on the gain-line, as do the backs.
The pace and power of the Brumbies back three of Henry Speight, Joe Tomane and Jesse Mogg will seriously test the Cheetahs defence if they are allowed the space to run free, while the centre pairing of Christian Lealiifano and Tevita Kuridrani is the perfect mix of guile and brute force.
But the Cheetahs also have the backline players to hurt the Brumbies … whether the SuperRugby surprise packets will get to enjoy a successful uprising in the Australian capital will all come back to their forwards though.
If the Cheetahs manage to upset the Brumbies, it will ensure that the Bulls will host the winner of the Crusaders/Reds playoff next weekend.
The Reds will be hoping that the return of Will Genia and James Horwill will lift them after their poor performance last weekend that saw them just scrape by the Waratahs 14-12 in a game that they really should have lost.
But the Reds have beaten all other New Zealand opposition this season and coach Ewen McKenzie, who has been appointed as the new Wallabies coach for mostly that reason, will want to ensure that he bags the biggest scalp of them all in Christchurch on Saturday.
The Crusaders, however, are probably the form team of the competition and the four-match winning streak they are on includes the phenomenal 43-15 dismantling of the defending champion Chiefs a fortnight ago.
The Reds will not only have to overcome the seven-time champions at their home fortress, but also see off the talents of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
The All Blacks flyhalf has, typically, peaked at the business end of the competition, while the New Zealand captain has been named on the bench.
The Reds have not been as dazzling this year as their reputation suggests – and the absence of star wings Rod Davies and Digby Ioane on Saturday will hurt them further in this regard.
The 2011 champions have scored just 31 tries, which puts them in the bottom four, while the Crusaders have scored 44 tries, which puts them in the top three.