The Vodacom Cheetahs travel to Durban for this weekend’s plum Absa Currie Cup clash against the Sharks under the sort of pressure they have not felt often during the past three seasons.
Gavin Rich writes for SuperRugby reports that the Super 14 is different, but the Cheetahs have tended to progress comfortably through the league phases of the domestic competition en route to three successive holds on the Currie Cup trophy. There have been constant questions about their depth, or lack thereof, but seldom has this potential problem been exposed.
It may be happening now, however, as Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske goes into this crucial match with a loose-forward in Kabamba Floors on the wing, and with Tewis de Bruyn forced into duty as the first choice flyhalf.
The Cheetahs’ defeat to Vodacom Western Province in Bloemfontein last week on its own need not be regarded as a train smash, but it could start looking like a watershed, in the negative sense, if they suffer a second successive defeat in Durban.
With WP, with all their Springboks back, sure to pick up five log points against the Falcons at Newlands on Saturday, that could leave them within striking distance of the Cheetahs — who then have to host the Vodacom Blue Bulls next weekend. It is a situation that will severely test the renowned Cheetahs fighting spirit, and a Cheetahs derailment will become a distinct possibility.
The Sharks know how dangerous the Cheetahs can be as they have not scored many Currie Cup wins over their rivals over the past five or six seasons, and if they do have hoodoo opponents, it is the team from Bloemfontein.
So Johann Muller’s men will have two goals in mind at Absa Stadium — retain the momentum of last week’s great win over the Blue Bulls by moving one step closer to the coveted top of the log finish, and at the same time deal a mortal blow to the morale and standing of the reigning champions.
The Sharks have the team to do it, and the more direct approach they are following under the coaching of John Plumtree is rapidly transforming them into a dangerous combination quite capable of ending a 12 year trophy drought in Durban.
Muller leads a pack quite capable of matching and shading the feared Cheetahs eight, and they have five forwards on the bench as recognition of where their biggest challenge is going to come.
Included among the forward replacements are three Springboks in the form of Beast Mtawirara, Albert van den Berg and Ryan Kankowski, plus one of the most promising young tightheads in the land, Patric Cilliers.
And with Rory Kockott and Adrian Jacobs also there to provide impact, this is one important area where the Sharks appear to hold a crucial edge, as indeed they do at the back, where every single player has played international rugby either for South Africa or France.
The Cheetahs have upset the Sharks in the past, but this is one time you have to back the Durbanites.
The Currie Cup weekend starts on Friday night, with the Bulls expected to deal easily with the Boland Cavaliers, while the Lions should maintain their place in the top four with a regulation win over Griquas in Johannesburg.
But both the Lions and Cheetahs will have reached a stage where they are looking nervously over their shoulders at the fifth placed WP, who have the advantage of playing all their remaining league matches in the Cape (the derby against Boland in nearby Wellington is their only away match).
Vodacom Blue Bulls v Boland Cavaliers Pretoria 7.10pm
Prediction: Bulls by 30.
Vodacom Western Province v Valke Cape Town 3pm
Prediction: WP by 70 to 80.
Xerox Lions v Wildeklawer Griquas Johannesburg 3pm
Prediction: Lions by 20.
Sharks v Vodacom Cheetahs Durban 5.05pm
Prediction: Sharks by 10 to 15.