The Currie Cup play-offs will begin a week early as far as the Free State Cheetahs are concerned, after coach Naka Drotské ordered his charges to view their final round-robin match against Boland as a quarterfinal.
This year’s Currie Cup has been hotly contested, and the scrap for the third and fourth semifinal spots couldn’t be any closer after thirteen rounds of competition.
In fact, the race between the Cheetahs, Western Province and the Lions for the final two play-off berths is so close that all three teams could conceivably finish the round-robin stage on 41 points – if WP record a bonus-point win, the Lions fail to score any log points, and the Cheetahs win their match without scoring a bonus point.
That scenario will mean that qualification for the semifinals will be down to points difference.
But the Cheetahs can avoid that situation and book their place in the semifinals, regardless of the WP v Lions result, if they beat the Boland Cavaliers in Bloemfontein on Saturday, and score four tries or more in the process.
The Cheetahs gleefully watched the odds swing back in their favour in the race for the play-offs when Western Province failed to score a bonus point in their 23-7 win over Boland on the infamous mudbath that is the Boland Stadium pitch.
Free State Cheetahs assistant coach Helgard Müller told rugby365.com that the Cheetahs knew exactly what they had to do to take advantage of Province’s misfortune.
[Head coach] Naka [Drotské] did stress to the players already that this match [against Boland] needs to be viewed as a quarterfinal, because if we don’t make it, we’re out of the competition,” Müller told this website.
“I think it is of great importance for us to get five log points from the Boland match.
“We won’t get ahead of ourselves and think of it as a given, as Boland on their day can be a very challenging team, and when they’re on song, they are a different animal.
“But we will be aiming to play winning rugby this weekend – there won’t be much scope for entertaining or adventurous rugby at the moment.
“Our people must realise that they will have to pitch up for this match, otherwise it’s the end of the season. There will no second chances if we don’t do the job this weekend.”
At this time of the season, there is always the temptation for coaches to rest key players from the final ‘lesser’ league matches, with the aim of preventing injuries. Word from the Blue Bulls camp is that the Pretoria outfit will be sending out a second-string side to face the Falcons at Loftus Versfeld.
But Müller explained that the Bloemfontein-based side were not in such a luxurious position.
“I don’t think lowering the risk of injury [by resting the players] is necessarily the way to go forward from here. Naka and I will just take the lads through their preparation as usual this week,” he said.
“We won’t change too much to the regular training schedule – some of the guys might get unsettled and wonder what is going on if we do that.
“For that reason we will be getting down to business as usual and there won’t be much razzmatazz in the build-up to this weekend and beyond.”
The Cheetahs have done very well to be in such a strong position, considering that this is a transitional season for the union.
A large number of experienced players such as Ollie le Roux, Os du Randt, Phillip Burger and Willem de Waal have moved on since last year, and have been replaced by young stars of the future, albeit inexperienced ones. Yet fresh-faced youngsters such as Robert Ebersohn and Wilton Pietersen have blossomed, contributing impressively to the Cheetahs’ cause.
But the reality is that the pressure of a sudden-death scenario is something new to many of the Cheetahs young guns, and their response to the ‘big match’ situation will be vital if the Cheetahs are to get anywhere near a fourth consecutive Currie Cup title.
“Pressure is always relative,” mused Müller. “There are a number of youngsters in the camp that will learn from the experience.
“However, in a knock-out situation, it really doesn’t matter whether you have 20 Tests behind your name or not – it’s how you perform on the day that counts.
“We can accept the fact that this [a knock-out scenario] will be something new for many of the players, and it will be interesting to see how they react.
“It will of course be of vital importance to cut out as many mistakes as we can,” the coach continued.
The Cheetahs camp have already started their week off on a positive note, with the news that the rib injury sustained by Springbok hooker Adriaan Strauss in the massive win over the Falcons is not serious.
Furthermore, the Bloemfonteiners can look forward to welcoming back two shrewd heads for the rest of their campaign.
“Adriaan Strauss is able to play. He received a blow on the ribs, but he’s not seriously injured. The doctors have told me that he is playable,” Müller confirmed.
“Chris Rossouw and Juan Smith are both close to returning to the match squad. We will take a closer look at Jean tomorrow [Tuesday], and see how he feels.
“Our medical staff will obviously continue to monitor him and Chris very closely, but I imagine they’ll both be fit to play this weekend.”
That can only be a good omen for the Cheetahs, who could well be excellent value as dark horses to retain their Currie Cup title.
By Phil Coetzer of Rugby 365Tweet