Cheetahs braced for imperfect storm

Raymond Rhule and Robert Ebersohn celebrate a scintillating try against the Rebels. (Gallo Images)

Raymond Rhule and Robert Ebersohn celebrate a scintillating try against the Rebels. (Gallo Images)

When Robert and Sias ­Ebersohn were at Grey College, it seemed only a matter of time before they became ­Springboks. Robert got his chance earlier than his twin, joining Paul Treu’s Springbok Sevens set-up straight from school. From there, he went directly into Super Rugby, while Sias toiled away in age-group games for the Cheetahs.

Three years ago, Sias came off the bench with five minutes remaining against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld and slotted a touchline conversion to win the game for the Cheetahs.
The following year, he finally became a first-choice player for the Cheetahs in both Super Rugby and Currie Cup rugby, but then the wheels started to come off.

There were, it was rumoured, mental issues. A young man with bags of talent did not really believe that he belonged and so he chose to relocate to Perth, a haven for many South Africans. Brother Robert stayed behind and so got to be a part of the Cheetahs’ remarkable tour to the Antipodes this year, where they won their last three games after being soundly thrashed by the Chiefs in Hamilton.

They made it four in a row by earning a bonus-point win against the Rebels in Bloemfontein last week. More significantly, Robert stepped out of the shadows and gave his best performance yet in Super Rugby. The highlight was a shimmying break through two defenders, culminating in a behind-the-back Sonny Bill Williams offload to the flying Raymond Rhule.

The confidence engendered by winning on a regular basis has obviously had a profound effect, not just on Ebersohn, but also on the entire Cheetahs team. Expected to battle it out with the Kings to avoid the post-season promotion/relegation battle with the Lions, the Cheetahs now find themselves being touted as a potential play-off team.

Their true quality will be revealed this week when the Cheetahs host the Stormers in Bloemfontein. The Cape franchise is desperate, having lost three out of five matches and a number of high-quality players to injury. In addition, the great Schalk Burger is in hospital with meningitis.

Pre-season, this might have loomed as a fairly low hurdle in the greater scheme of things for Allister Coetzee’s management team, but now it is mountainous terrain. The Stormers looked like the team to beat until the season got under way and a bonus point win against the Brumbies seemed to confirm that. But if they are serious about making the play-offs, they need some new ideas.

Bash-kick-bash
It would be nice to think that this game will add up to a bit more than the bash-kick-bash we have come to associate with South African derbies. The constant refrain of losing coaches has been that they need to shore up their defence. No one seems to care about attack anymore, which makes the traditional approach of the Cheetahs a breath of fresh air.

It is possible that the other big game of the weekend will give us a little more to chew on. Fresh from beating the Stormers, the Crusaders should be confident about facing a Sharks team emerging from a bye weekend. Even without Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, the seven-time champions know how to close out a rugby match.

Both the Sharks and the Crusaders reached the semifinals last year, with the Sharks beating the Stormers to progress to the final, whereas the Crusaders fell to the Chiefs. Sharks coach, John Plumtree, has a conundrum to solve ahead of the game. The side that lost badly to the Brumbies was broken up in favour of a more youthful look against the Rebels. It was a wake-up call to a few decorated Springboks, but it succeeded to such an extent that he may now be unsure what constitutes his best side.

Things were not helped by the chaotic final quarter against the Rebels when the bench was cleared and hookers were playing on the flank, flankers on the wing. It means that, unlike the Crusaders who have plotted an upward curve after a slow start, the Sharks do not really know how good they are at this advanced stage of the season. Good enough to beat the Crusaders? Maybe, but do not bet on it.

There is another, more sombre, reason why the Sharks may not be at their best this week and that is the senseless murder of a man on the Kings Park B field three hours after their last game concluded. The Sharks will wear black armbands this week and a minute’s silence will be observed, but that will not change what happened.

Rugby used to laugh at the violence endemic to football crowds. The game policed itself and time and again it has been proved that alcohol does not cause hooliganism, hooligans do. But the Kings Park incident is merely the worst of a worrying trend of thuggery seen this season, especially in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town.

It must be nipped in the bud before it spirals out of control, and for that to happen the vast majority of decent people who attend rugby matches need to become a good deal more intolerant.

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