Tuesday 22 May 2018

Exotic new arrivals from South Africa are there to be shot down

Louis Ludik of Ulster is tackled by the Cheetahs’ Sergeal Petersen at Kingspan Stadium. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Louis Ludik of Ulster is tackled by the Cheetahs’ Sergeal Petersen at Kingspan Stadium. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

So now we have a better idea of how a captive Cheetah acts.

Startled; becalmed; but still the fastest animal on earth. Once caged, subdued with relative ease until even their electric wheels are rendered relatively useless once denied open country.

Kiss: “You saw what the Cheetahs could do at times.” Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Kiss: “You saw what the Cheetahs could do at times.” Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Captive, maybe, but still captivating for all that.

South Africa's newest additions to Guinness PRO14 championship rugby offered the perfect example of just why the blazers market their competition as the most attack-minded in Europe.

And, being a league where the absence of relegation means that there are no dire consequences for failure, Rory Duncan's men delivered the type of entertainment that the marketing men and TV audiences across both hemispheres demanded.

That the type of rugby they displayed didn't have a snowball's chance of delivering a victory is not yet a concern; the new arrivals have a free pass this season before they become truly competitive.

The Cheetahs' best chance of converting their natural speed into substance will come at home, as Leinster, shorn of a fair smattering of internationals, will discover later this month.

"You saw what the Cheetahs could do at times," said Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss (below), who had been palpably nervous pre-game, notwithstanding the visitors' underwhelming pre-season campaign.

"They had some world-class finishers and when you gave them scraps they showed they could stay in the hunt. They hurt us a few times.

"Their pace made me extremely nervous. For the majority we did well… the kick-chase, where they get a lot of their initial momentum, we did well there.

"We did get a bit narrow at times when they went wide, wide, wide. They just used that speed, with Cecil Afrika doing some damage.

"That's what you'll be faced with against them. You can't give them that ball. Look, I think if you played them over there first up, it would have been a different story.

"They've got Munster next week and they'll be worried about it for sure. That's a good team there."

Nevertheless, Munster, who will be just as aggressive as Ulster in the carry and tackle, should also pick up five points from this weekend's fixture and ensure both provinces a morale-boosting clean sweep from back-to-back South African/Italian engagements.

The visitors, who will take in the Cliffs of Moher as they venture south this week, will retain the element of surprise as their main gambit.

"It was frightening doing analysis," admitted Kiss, who was also unnerved when Clayton Blommetijes - nominally fifth-choice out-half - was unfurled; despite his try, Blommetijes' performance matched his status.

"We weren't concerned about us losing our way," continued Kiss, "as long as we put the plan together the way we wanted to. I was concerned that if it got too loose, it might hurt us more than it would hurt them, with their sheer speed.

"I wanted us to be as positive as we could, play with the ambition and the skills that I know we have, in the shape that we're working towards.

"We did that enough times to hurt them, so that when they came back at us, we were on the front foot.

"What I feared was, the time we put through a kick and it wasn't on. And then if we tried to put inappropriate passes out the back, that would have worried me.

"Later, though, John Cooney may have thrown an intercept but he held the ball, so we showed good discipline. We didn't fall into the trap, that was the real danger.

"We kept our discipline within that ambitious approach. They did what we expected them to do. They tried to maul and we blunted it enough times to take it away from them.

"They will trouble teams. If you give them easy ball, they will trouble you. And we didn't give them much early ball.

"We want to open the game up and be able to read it from there. I thought we took a step forward in that direction, it wasn't perfect but it's important we play that type of game here but in an organised and disciplined way.

"We did that enough times. We regressed in the second half, kicked a bit too much. We should have trusted our skill-sets more but maybe Christian Lealiifano was tiring a bit at that stage. I'm happy with the ambition of our game and we just need to be more clinical."

The Cheetahs promise they will not adapt their game-plan; they just need to master it. "It is focusing on execution," says coach Duncan. "And defensively, we gave them far too much space and momentum when they had ball in hand.

"If you analyse the game, we can see the opportunities we are creating. We had five or six penalties at the breakdown and that's an area where Ulster were very good - they hold on to the ball for long phases and were clinical at breakdown.

"If we hang on to possession, we will open up space. So it's not a case of changing our game-plan coming into this league, it's about adapting to what the opposition throw at us. We forced a few passes we probably shouldn't have.

"We have capitalised on opportunities. We're a team that does like to move the ball around and that is the way the Cheetahs play rugby."

On this evidence at least, it seems relatively easy to stop them doing it.

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