Cheetahs' evolution: From students to professionals
IN THE CURRIE CUP SPOTLIGHT: Eighteen months ago Franco Smith set off on a journey to turn the Cheetahs into a successful professional outfit.
He had many detractors and skeptics who questioned his decision to revamp the Cheetahs team and bring in a host of Varsity Cup players - when he took over towards the latter rounds of the 2015 Super Rugby season.
Their adversarial and often antagonistic attitude were fuelled by some less-than-satisfactory results in the closing stages of the competition.
And the signs of the team's evolution was also not as evident as Smith would have liked in the 2015 Currie Cup season, where they were knocked out at the semifinal stage by the Golden Lions.
There were glimpses of Smith's masterplan - a new attractive and expansive game - at play in the Super Rugby season this year, even though the Cheetahs still finished outside the top 10.
However, his persistence, the buy-in from the players and continuity in selection finally saw the 2016 Currie Cup season become their break-out competition.
Smith was full of praise for his players and their "buy-in", following their surprisingly dominant display against the defending champion Golden Lions in the Currie Cup semifinal in Bloemfontein last Saturday.
But he also cautioned that the 55-17 demolition does not mean they have reached their goal.
It is simply part of a journey to a greater goal.
"It started with a plan some 18 months ago and they bought into that," Smith said.
"We've learnt a lot of lessons and I am grateful to see how they believe [in that plan] and apply it."
He said that if you have the right mindset anything is possible.
He felt the biggest change in the team's make-up was their physical conditioning.
"A year ago we were hashtagged 'NewGeneration'," he said, adding: "It was about their physical development and that was very important.
"Credit to the Quintin Kruger and his conditioning people. We said we wanted stronger, more able players.
"Physically they are very different players than last year - they fill out their jerseys now."
Smith said the majority of the team went from 'students' to 'professional' players.
"Once you have had a run in Super Rugby then you see things differently.
"They have learnt how to work like professionals.
"Students only worried about their next meal. Now they have regular meals, [they are] ensured that they eat properly and they see conditioning coaches regularly.
"All those aspects were part of the process to turn them into professional players," he said, adding that the changes in the players' make-up are 'legendary'.
Some pundits pointed to the fact that Smith and his Cheetahs team followed a similar path to what the Lions took some three years ago - when they also started from scratch.
However, the Cheetahs seemed to have made the turnaround in double-quick time.
"There were great expectations when we started the Currie Cup competition last year and that first game against the Bulls we succeeded in emptying out the [Free State] stadium," he said of the start the journey.
"It has been a mission to fill up the stands again," he said, adding that there is lots if hard work ahead.
"What makes this group so special is that they are determined to achieve success. Yes, there's still a lot of work ahead.
"It is one thing to be successful and another to be significant.
"The key is to have the right attitude. You can have attitude, but you must have the right attitude and that takes time.
"There is often an impatient expectation out there, but some patience is required."
Captain Francois Venter also felt that continuity and hard work are beginning to pay dividends.
Of the starting XV that demolished the Lions in Bloemfontein this past weekend, 10 players featured in the Cheetahs' last Super Rugby match against the Bulls in July
"We have become a unit and the guys are playing for each other," Venter said.
"If you have a group of players that believe in the cause, you will achieve success.
"We are at a stage where everybody believes in the system.
"The way they are putting their bodies on the line tells a story of its own."