The Cheetahs come into the competition as an unknown entity, with a new coach in former Springbok hooker Naka Drotské and a fantastic domestic record of only one loss en route to winning last year’s Currie Cup Final.
Rugby 365 preditcs that the young side have the potential to shine in 2008, with a number of talented youngsters like Heinrich Brussow, Richardt Strauss and Wian du Preez playing their second Super 14.
However, this advantage is offset by some serious weaknesses.
The Cheetahs are struggling for depth in some key areas going into the competition, with neither of their two new fly-half options having been tested at Super Rugby level and very little going for them in the lock department either.
While Rory Duncan and Barend Pieterse are sure to be able to hold their own in the engine room, the back-up is lacking with only unknown’s in 27-year-old Dawie de Villiers and former South Africa Under-21 player Flip van der Merwe available.
Neither have any Super 14 experience.
Strengths: The Cheetahs have a vastly talented group of loose forwards with the likes of Springboks Juan Smith, Hendro Scholtz and Kabamba Floors, along with Currie Cup star Duanne Vermeulen, Heinrich Brussow and Darron Nell in the mix. The front row could also prove formiddable in 2008 with Wian du Preez and Springbok CJ van der Linde packing down on either side of the highly mobile Richardt Strauss.
Weakness: The Cheetahs main weakness lies in the lack of depth that the franchise have. Lock and inside centre back-ups are in short supply. The franchise also have to rely on a number of their up-and-coming players pulling through for them, which is a risky move at best.
Noteworthy signings: Hennie Daniller (Boland), Jongi Nokwe (Boland), Jacques-Louis Potgieter (Bulls), Phillip Lemmer (Falcons), Ronnie Uys (Sharks), Howard Noble (Sharks).
Noteworthy losses: Willem de Waal (Narbonne), Marius Joubert (Toulon), Corneil van Zyl (Benetton Treviso), Ronnie Cooke (Club Athlétique Brive), Os du Randt (retired), Jannie du Plessis (Sharks).
Coach: Naka Drotské followed in the footsteps of his predecessor Rassie Erasmus, winning the Currie Cup in his first full year as a coach. Remarkably Drotské’s Free State Cheetahs lost only one game on the way to the title. The former Springbok hooker has proved to be a shrewd coach, and with the majority of the victorious Currie Cup squad available to him again
Captain: Juan Smith is one of most highly rated loose forwards in South Africa, if not the world. He has made steady progress over the last few years as a player, culminating in stellar performances in the World Cup last year. The big flank has matured into a world class player. Now he must show the same maturity as the Cheetahs skipper.
Player(s) to watch: The question at the Cheetahs is more who not to watch. In the forwards Richardt Strauss will be looking to build on a phenominal Currie Cup, while the player of the comnpetition, Duanne Vemeulen, will also be looking to shine. Among the backs Jacques-Louis Potgieter will want to prove his worth after moving to the Cheetahs from the Bulls last year. Howard Noble could also thrill if given game-time.
2007 Position: 11th
Best finish: 10th (2006 – debut year)
Worst finish: 11th (2007)
Home Venue: Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein (capacity 40,000)
2008 Prediction: The Cheetahs have struggled to transfer their Currie Cup successes to the Super 14. New coach Naka Drotské has lost key players and although some youngsters got their first taste of Super rugby last year, there is still a lack of experience that could leave the Cheetahs floundering at the bottom end of the competition’s standings. Prediction: 9th
Backs: Falie Oelschig, Tewis de Bruyn, Sarel Pretorius, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Conrad Barnard, Meyer Bosman, Hendrik Meyer, Alwyn Hollenbach, JW Jonker, Lafras Uys, Herkie Kruger, Jongi Nokwe, Eddie Fredericks, Howard Noble, Gavin Passens, Hennie Daniller, Bevin Fortuin, Herman Pretorius.
Forwards: Wian du Preez, Regardt Dreyer, Bees Roux, Ronnie Uys, Phillip Lemmer, Kobus Calldo, Adriaan Strauss, Richardt Strauss, Jaco du Toit, Hans van Dyk, Barend Pieterse, Rory Duncan, Flip van der Merwe, David de Villiers, Kabamba Floors, Hendro Scholtz, Heinrich Brussouw, Juan Smith, Duanne Vermeulen, Frans Viljoen, Wayne van Heerden, Heinrich Stride, Darron Nell,
16 Feb: v Lions, home
22 Feb: v Force, home
1 March: v Blues, home
8 March: v Chiefs, away
15 March: v Crusaders, away
21 March: v Brumbies, away
28 March: v Waratahs, away
5 April: v Reds, home
12 April: v Stormers, away
18/19 April: Bye
26 April: v Hurricanes, home
2 May: v Highlanders, home
10 May: v Sharks, away
17 May: v Bulls, home