Cheetahs have a lot to chew on

On Saturday this season's surprise package hosts the Bulls in Bloemfontein in the final game of Super Rugby before the competition closes down for a month, when the June international window opens.

As things stand, the Bulls lie second on the combined log, with 50 points from nine wins and three defeats.

The Cheetahs have played one more game, but also have nine wins and a total of 45 points. Crucially, however, they have a bye left in the locker, which the Bulls do not. The guaranteed four points from that bye means that the real distance between the two sides is one small log point.

With the Kings (24 points), Stormers (34) and Sharks (34) now out of the running, barring some mathematical miracles, the battle for conference honours is solely between the Bulls and the Cheetahs. The importance of topping the local log cannot be underestimated, for it guarantees home fixtures in the play-offs. Furthermore, coming first or second in the overall log carries the extra cachet of a week off while the third to sixth place sides squabble over the right to play at your venue in the semifinals.

All of the above is at stake this week. A win away from home for the Bulls would not necessarily end the Cheetahs' chances of honours but it would leave a sizeable dent in their campaign. When the fixtures resume, the Bulls host the Kings and Sharks at Loftus and finish against the Stormers at Newlands.

Significant change
The Cheetahs are at Newlands in the first week back, and then they host the Blues in Bloemfontein before sitting out the final week of log play because of their bye.

The fractured ending to the conference season is yet another reason why there is likely to be significant change in years to come.

The June international window looks set to be pushed back to July, allowing Super Rugby to play itself out from start to finish. For the sides that are out of the running, and with promotion/relegation issues being a purely South African phenomenon, there is even less incentive to give of your best for the last month of the competition when that month is deferred.

For the Cheetahs and the Bulls, however, there is everything to play for, particularly because several players have been here before. In 2005, Free State ended a 29-year drought by beating the Bulls in the final of the Currie Cup in Pretoria. It began a period of rivalry between the two unions that helped to raise the level of play in this country and ended with Jake White's Springboks winning the World Cup two years later.

Morné Steyn, Wynand Olivier and Akona Ndungane all played for the Bulls that day, while Drotske captained the Cheetahs side in his final game before retirement.

Then, as now, the Cheetahs battled to find quality lock forwards. In the final, the wise coach, Rassie Erasmus, filled the bench with a full front row and the vertically challenged flank Kabamba Floors, telling his two locks, Barend Pieterse and Corniel van Zyl: "I don't care if you break your arm, you're not coming off!"

Lood de Jager would know exactly how Pieterse and Van Zyl felt that day. At 20 years of age, De Jager is a graduate of the North-West University's rugby institute. Thrown into the first team when injuries had decimated the already thin resources, De Jager has stepped on to the Super Rugby stage as though he belongs.

On Saturday he will probably have to compete against two current Springboks, Juandre Kruger and Flip van Zyl, although both were reported to be carrying niggles at the Springbok training camp in Durban. Nothing that has gone before suggests that he will be anything less than very competitive.

History is against the Cheetahs. Since joining Super Rugby in 2006, they have never beaten the Bulls in 11 starts. As their captain Adriaan Strauss said this week, though: "This has been a season of firsts for us."

Hitherto the Cheetahs had never won more than five matches in a single Super Rugby season and had never come close to their total of three wins out of four on tour down under.

The suggestion must be, then, that far from being outsiders on Saturday, the Cheetahs ought to be firm favourites to beat the Bulls. Among the plus points for the home side are the best back row in the country, the best hooker and most inspirational captain, the form centre and, best of all, Willie le Roux, whose prodigious back-line talents make him impossible to define within the rigid structures of a rugby team.

It is possible that, even in this exceptional season, the Cheetahs will freeze on the day. After all, in 2006 the Currie Cup final was going the way of the Bulls right up until the 74th minute, when Noel Oelschig's high kick bounced into the hands of Meyer Bosman.

The youngster dotted down under the posts and a promising season became an unforgettable one.

If the Cheetahs don't freeze, we may be in for a little bit of history repeating itself on Saturday.


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