Comment - The Cheetahs look like Pro14 play-off contenders, which is both weird and wonderful
It was a shame, not only for Scott Baldwin’s pride, that a lion nibble nabbed so many headlines last Friday evening in the wake of another fine win for the Cheetahs.
In overturning the out-of-sorts Ospreys 44-25 in Bloemfontein, the hosts dispatched a team containing three British and Irish Lions. Armed with a robust driving maul, they outmuscled Steve Tandy’s side in the tight exchanges and were far too dynamic when the game became fractured.
Naturally, there were neurotic periods fraught with errors. This is an outfit that blew a 24-0 lead against the Chiefs in Super Rugby six months ago. A few weeks later, the Highlanders scored three tries in the final five minutes to beat them 45-41 from 41-24 behind.
Many thought these crazy games would mean that the Pro 14’s latest arrivals would be entertaining newcomers at least. Rory Duncan’s men were plucky underdogs with the unique selling point of producing end-to-end spectacles. But genuine competitors? Forget it.
Well, while still delivering on the helter-skelter scorelines - their five matches thus far have featured 48 tries - three consecutive victories have confounded the doom-mongers.
A fourth positive result when they host Glasgow Warriors on Friday would establish them, even at this early stage, as strong play-off prospects despite the logistical scramble to include them in the Pro14.
Having to juggle a concurrent Currie Cup campaign, which finishes in late October, is clearly a significant disadvantage and meant heavy away losses to Ulster and Munster were hardly surprising. But the conditions in Bloemfontein will keep heating up until January.
Edinburgh and Scarlets travel down in November, when they could encounter lightning runners Sergeal Peterson, Rosko Spekman and Raymond Rhule on hard, fast pitches. It is a huge shame that the blockbuster wing Makazole Mapimpi appears to be on the way to the Sharks at the turn of the year.
Even away assignments may not hold too much fear from here. Ernst Stapelberg looks to be an improving game manager at fly-half and back-rower Oupa Mohoje, should he remain surplus to the Springboks’ requirements, can keep bullying the gain-line as he did against Leinster. Zebre and Connacht represent their next trips.
The new competition format also works in the Cheetahs’ favour. Their current standing of third in conference A will be enough to earn a quarter-final eliminator and they have South African derbies to fall back on.
Three meetings with hapless compatriots Southern Kings, including January’s home-and-away double-header scheduled for the two final rounds of European action, should yield 15 points.
Even through dreary attendance figures reflecting the domestic befuddlement and indifference towards their exploits in a foreign tournament, the Cheetahs can make a dash at the title.
To see them lift the trophy in Dublin on May 26 would be every bit as refreshing as the respective successes of Connacht and Scarlets. Not only that, it would make SA Rugby ’s previously fanciful argument for Champions Cup involvement pretty compelling.
If the Cheetahs’ penultimate league game, a home tie against Munster, turns out to be the key to securing a home semi-final, all bets are off. Until then, make sure to tune in.