Something special is brewing in Bloemfontein
The Cheetahs’ sensational victory over the Stormers has thrown the South African Conference wide open.
The South African Conference is the most captivating of the three national Super Rugby conferences this season and it became even more intriguing at the weekend when the Free Staters’ fairytale run continued in extraordinary fashion.
Many would argue with this assessment and look to stats to strengthen their respective cases. Kiwi supporters, for instance, could suggest that the New Zealand Conference - on the basis of their franchises’ positive, attacking approach to the game - is the premier conference.
New Zealand sides are undoubtedly in a league of their own in terms of skills, flair and finishing, their combined total of 89 tries (against all opposition) far superior to that of Australian (71) and South African (66) sides.
The New Zealand Conference arguably boasts the greatest depth, with only eight log points separating the top four franchises, but in terms of character, suspense, drama and unpredictability, the South African Conference has stolen the spotlight whilst being equally competitive.
The Cheetahs’ run of five consecutive wins and the heart displayed by no hopers the Southern Kings week in and week out have made these Super Rugby minnows two of the must-watch teams of the tournament.
For all their Australasian exploits, it wasn’t until last Saturday’s win that the Cheetahs truly established themselves as possible play-off contenders.
Taking nothing away from their record-breaking run, but their four victories prior to the weekend came against the last-placed Highlanders and the three weakest Australian teams.
Last Saturday, the Cheetahs proved that they can knock off a top team and it was the manner in which they toppled the two-time South African Conference winners that showed that something special is brewing in Bloemfontein.
The win was achieved despite an unlucky seven-point blow just before half-time, without a scrumhalf for much of the second half and with the flyhalf no-one wanted.
Being shunted from the Bulls to the Lions to the Stormers to finally, the Cheetahs, Burton Francis emerged as the unlikely hero and dealt the hammer blow to cap a memorable man of the match performance.
The remarkable victory doesn’t suddenly make the Cheetahs title contenders, but it does put them in a great position to improve their best ever 10th place finish.
They are in second place in the South African Conference and as aforementioned, have already completed their overseas leg of the tournament.
In addition, Naka Drotské’s charges are assured of a further eight log points for their two byes and will play five of their nine remaining regular season matches at home.
The Stormers are languishing in fourth place in the national conference six games into the campaign and have already lost double the amount of matches they did in the entire 2012 regular season.
Nine points behind the conference-leading Sharks with a tour comprising games against the Hurricanes, Blues, Waratahs and Melbourne Rebels to come, they can ill afford to lose further ground, which makes this Saturday’s showdown against the Sharks at Newlands a must-win for the Cape side.
The Cheetahs did the Sharks a favour in beating the Stormers, but the Durban outfit are still some way away from clinching the conference title with a gruelling schedule including tour matches against the Chiefs, Highlanders, Reds and Western Force ahead.
The Bulls have been flying under the radar and have positioned themselves well in third place (six points behind the Sharks) after their tour. They will be refreshed after their bye and will look to leapfrog the Cheetahs when the teams collide at Loftus on Saturday.
With the Bulls set to play five of their nine matches at home after this weekend’s derby, they have set themselves up nicely and are legitimate conference contenders.
By Quintin van Jaarsveld
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