We’ll only know in just over a week how relevant they’ve been, but several statistics and even meteorological factors provide a timely Currie Cup tonic for the lifeline-seeking Cheetahs.
Rob Houwing writes for News 24 that the champions have lost three matches in a row without even so much as a bonus point, meaning they have slipped into the dreaded fifth spot on the 2008 table with two rounds left.
They are tied with resurgent, fourth-placed Western Province on 32 log points but presently elbowed out of the “semi-final zone” on points-for-and-against grounds – they are 42 adrift of Province on that score.
The Lions lie third, and although they could quite feasibly still miss the cut altogether – they must still play the table-topping Sharks in Johannesburg and then Province in a potentially decisive Newlands encounter – their nine-point cushion is a pretty tidy one.
People may have forgotten that even a high-scoring defeat at home to the Sharks may be enough to put them out of reach of both WP and the Cheetahs before the final round of ‘league’ matches: score four tries and finish within seven points on the scoreboard and the resultant two-point log haul would do the trick very nicely. (A slightly less likely draw, of course, would also suffice.)
For what it’s worth, the Lions won the decidedly low-scoring corresponding fixture 14-0 last season!
So possible Lions qualification as early as this weekend effectively means we’re talking a straight, two-match-each shootout between Province and the Cheetahs for the extra semis place.
The obvious has already been widely reported: the Cheetahs have the easier run-in, on paper, with successive matches against basement teams the Falcons (away) and Cavaliers (home), while Province must play the Cavaliers away before the big Lions crunch.
Yet those partial to WP are trumpeting the fact that, even assuming both teams win both matches with full five-point houses, Province’s superior “for and against” at this juncture may prove the key semis determinant.
So just how safe, then, is that 42-point superiority? Could the Cheetahs yet rein it in and actually nose back ahead on those grounds?
They have a very sporting chance: for one thing, both their matches will likely be played on end-of-winter dry, rock-hard highveld surfaces, whereas both of Province’s, at Wellington and Cape Town, could be slugged out in pretty heavy, muddy going which generally suggests lower scoring.
It rained again torrentially in midweek across the Western Cape, and Wellington did not escape the deluge – more was expected across the winelands on Friday – meaning that the visitors for the Cape derby may experience the same trouble the Lions did last week just to bank the bonus point: they got it with the last move of the match.
Also favouring the Cheetahs is the fact that this weekend’s opponents, the vulnerable Falcons, have conceded an average 48.75 points per game thus far, to the Cavaliers’ 37.91.
But the Cavaliers leak an average 50.66 points in away matches in 2008, indicating that they close the defensive gates much more stubbornly and successfully at home. And Jean de Villiers’s men will need no reminding of what happened at Wellington last winter: the Cavaliers scored a stunning 15-10 win.
Consider, too, that when the Cheetahs entertain the Cavaliers in the final round, they will be immeasurably more buoyed by last year’s Bloemfontein scoreline: 91-3 in their favour.
Several signs, then, point to Western Province yet ending up as the square peg that doesn’t fit into the round hole, as it were.
But they do have one key ally in their favour: their game against the Lions is the very last one on October 4 before the semi-final phase; the 17:05 kick-off minutes after the Cheetahs have finished against the Cavaliers.
Province will know precisely what scoreline they require – if that remains imperative.Tweet