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Cheetahs experience bodes well for future

The Cheetahs should look to next year’s Super Rugby competition with confidence, after securing their first Currie Cup title in nine years this past weekend.

The Free State men should look to emulate current Super Rugby runner-ups, The Lions, who they share similarities with.

Ahead of the final, Cheetahs head coach Franco Smith spoke of the importance of experience in previous competitions.“We’re a totally different team to the one that lost in the Currie Cup semis last year; we’ve grown up a lot since then and gained lots of experience, especially in this year’s Super Rugby competition,” he said.

The experience of playing together, and more importantly, winning together, should bode well for the future. Much was made of the success the University of Free State had ahead of the Currie Cup final after they secured their maiden Varsity Cup title. Guided by current Cheetahs coach, Smith, the side featured several players from the Cheetahs, including the star of both finals, fly-half, Niel Marais.

Historically, the Cheetahs and the Lions have been the least successful South African Super Rugby teams. As a result, very few players of either side were picked for the Springboks, meaning they were left to participate in competitions such as the Varsity and Currie Cup.

The Lions had the fortune of having almost their entire squad remain intact after only Warren Whitely was included in the Springbok squad for the 2015 Rugby Championship. They eventually ran out convincing winners of the Currie Cup last year, certainly aided by the experience they had playing together and the chemistry they built as a team.

Much like the Lions of last year, the Cheetahs only had two players selected for Rugby Championship squad this year. This meant they were able to use their experience from Super Rugby and apply it to the Currie Cup effortlessly, running out 36-16 winners over the Bulls.

Franco Smith’s experience and his approach to the game are also quite similar to that of Lions coach Johan Ackermann. Smith, 44, has been on the South African rugby scene for a long time, and as a player, was capped nine times by the Springboks. Ackermann, 46, also a very experienced player, was capped 13 times by South Africa. Their background as players from traditional running rugby provinces has certainly also carried over into their coaching.

The Cheetahs players’ paths up until now have all been quite similar to each other, and again, the Lions. Most of them have experienced rejection from other rugby unions before finding success. Key players Paul Schoeman (EP Kings), Clayton Blommetjies (Bulls), Cheetahs Captain Francois Venter (Bulls) and Sergeal Petersen (EP Kings) are just a few of those who have benefited since joining the Cheetahs. The experience of being not deemed ‘good enough’ certainly seems to have brought the team closer, and been a major factor in their success.

The Cheetahs will now have an off-season to prepare for what will be a very interesting 2017 Super Rugby season. Players such as Venter and Petersen, who have both been included in the Springbok squad for the November tests, will certainly gain valuable experience.

The future of Cheetahs rugby looks a bright one.

Reece Labuschagne
Reece is an aspiring sports journalist, broadcaster and analyst. He is currently attending the New Zealand Radio Training School in Auckland and hopes to obtain a diploma in Radio Journalism and Broadcasting.
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