by Mike Greenaway
THREE months ago, the Cheetahs came to Durban as thorough underdogs for a first-round Super Rugby match and were duly beaten 24-9 by the Sharks, who in turn three months later find themselves the underdogs for tomorrow’s return fixture in Bloemfontein.
Back in February, the Free Staters had hit the ground running with a resounding splat and along with the Lions, their old allies in adversity, they remained in the murky depths of the competition cellar until mid-season, despite having pulled a handsome ace from their collective sleeve in Sydney in March to shock the Waratahs into a defeat that had them booed off the field.
The Cheetahs kept on losing although almost always by within seven points and they kept on scoring tries, and their 10 bonus points is the most by any of the 15 teams.
And then they hit a winning streak of four games in a row, a record for the Cheetahs in Super Rugby which included the prize scalp of the Crusaders in Bloemfontein, and which last week ended with honour in defeat to the Bulls in Pretoria.
Interestingly, the 9th placed Cheetahs have scored 383 points, second only to the Crusaders (397), and the 38 tries they have scored is bettered only by the Crusaders (40) and the Reds (42).
The fifth-placed Sharks, by comparison, are only four tries behind the Cheetahs but here is the deal – the Cheetahs have leaked 43 tries, just over double the amount of the Sharks (21). Only the Waratahs (17) and the Stormers (13) have conceded less tries.
These statistics say a lot about the season thus far but what they don’t reveal is recent form. The Cheetahs have shored up their defence over the last month and turned their weak point into a strong point and previously fragile players on defence, such as the Ebersohn twins and Sarel Pretorius are now making their one-on-on tackles.
Apart from sorting out their tackling, the Cheetahs have been very good in the set pieces and that has provided a launching pad for their ball carriers to get them over the advantage line and unleash their backs. The likes of flanker Ashley Johnson, lock Francois Uys, props Coenie Oosthuizen and WP Nel, and hooker Adriaan Strauss have made big yards with ball in hand off the back of solid set pieces.
At the back, they have the big boots of Riaan Viljoen and Sias Ebersohn, so they can vary their game.
Which brings us to the Sharks and what they have to do to win this absolutely vital match if they are to make the quarter-finals.
The Bulls showed the Sharks the way at Loftus last week when they disrupted the Cheetahs’ set piece enough times to curb the impact of Johnson and company.
The Sharks have to tighten up their game and not allow the home side to get momentum. They also need to kick intelligently for territory more so than they have so far. In the words of coach Plumtree, they need to play Test match (lower risk) rugby and ensure they are not trapped behind the gain line when on attack.
But above all, each player has got to pull finger and up his intensity in everything he does. What has gone before is no longer good enough so close to the play-offs.
Plumtree has kept changes to a minimum but there is, of course the much publicised return of Frederic Michalak, who from the bench will cover both scrumhalf and flyhalf.
In other changes, Charl McLeod starts at 9 in place of the injured Conrad Hoffmann. In the forwards, lock Gerhard Mostert replaces DHS Old Boy Alistair Hargreaves, who drops to the bench. There is also a boost for the Sharks with the return of Ryan Kankowski, who starts at No 8 in a back row of Willem Alberts and Keegan Daniel.
Centre Adi Jacobs is back from injury and displaces Riaan Swanepoel from the bench.
Kick-off: 5.05 pm
Referee: Mark Lawrence
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Riaan Viljoen, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Corne Uys, 11 Philip Snyman, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Davon Raubenheimer, 7 Ashley Johnson, 6 Johan Wessels, 5 Martin Muller, 4 Francois Uys, 3 WP Nel, 2 Adriaan Strauss (capt), 1 Coenie Oosthuizen.
Substitutes: Ryno Barnes, Lourens Adriaanse, Izak van der Westhuizen, Pieter Myburgh, Tewis de Bruyn, Naas Olivier, Riaan Smit.
Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Stefan Terblanche , 12 Meyer Bosman, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Keegan Daniel, 5 Gerhard Mostert, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Eugene van Staden, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 John Smit (capt).
Substitutes: Tendai Mtawarira, Wiehahn Herbst, Alistair Hargreaves, Jacques Botes, Frederic Michalak, Jacques-Louis Potgieter, Adrian Jacobs
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