This time last year, the Free State Cheetahs were free-falling down the rugby Currie Cup log in a slide that would end in them fighting for their Premier Division status in a promotion-relegation match against the South Western Districts Eagles.
A year later, they have hit the domestic rugby version of the jackpot by not only making the Currie Cup final but also hosting the Golden Lions in Bloemfontein on Saturday 7 September. Because there is no payout for South African teams that win competitions – the only tournament that offers prize money is the R500 000 SuperSport Rugby Challenge – hosting a final is the nearest thing to a windfall.
Having become a “blink and you miss it” event by being shortened to a single-round affair over the past two seasons, the oldest domestic rugby competition in the world has come to mean little to its intended public as well as those more closely involved, especially if you consider that this is a Rugby World Cup year.
But try telling the Cheetahs that the approximately R2.5 million net profit they stand to make by hosting the Currie Cup final and the victorious “pre-season” they’ve had for the Pro 14, which begins later this month, is something to be scoffed at.
How Cheetahs turned things around
Even by sport’s oldest adage that a year is a long time in any game, the Cheetahs suddenly finding themselves in the hunt for their sixth Currie Cup title has been some turnaround. But if you’re looking for tall tales of outgoing coach Franco Smith mixing good old-fashioned blood, sweat and tears with a sprinkling of gold dust, you’re not going to get it.
Certainly not if you ask the man himself: “There was an overlap between the Currie Cup and the Pro 14 , and people don’t understand how difficult it is to split your squad in two, especially when you’ve had some new players come in like we did last year. That unfortunately led us to finish bottom of the log. This year, we had our whole squad throughout the competition, so I believe that’s the main difference.”
The lack of overlap between the two competitions was less coincidence than shrewd business move by Cheetahs chief executive Harold Verster. He is said to have quietly canvassed the powers that be at SA Rugby for an earlier Currie Cup after last year’s flirtation with relegation.
With that taken care of, the lessons learned in the Pro 14 meant they were a team apart for the majority of the season. Because we don’t watch much of it, other than in highlights packages, South Africans hold the erroneous belief that rugby in the United Kingdom is of an inferior quality. But the reality is quite different.
Smith prefers to highlight the cohesion in his squad that six months of playing in last year’s Pro 14 engendered, as well as the laudable work of conditioning coach Quintin Kruger. But the Cheetahs’ superior work at the breakdown – an emphasised area in the United Kingdom – has been as responsible as anything for the upturn in their Currie Cup fortunes.
Ruan Pienaar’s homecoming
A bit of luck for the Cheetahs was the return of former Springbok scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, 35, after nine years overseas and fullback Clayton Blommetjies after a disastrous one-season spell at the Scarlets in Wales.
Pienaar’s case is an intriguing one. Born and bred in Bloemfontein, he only made his debut for his home team in this year’s Currie Cup, having left school for the Sharks and later moved to Ulster in Ireland and French side Montpellier.
After the Cheetahs rescued him from a life of obscurity at the Blue Bulls, Blommetjies thought he’d finally hit the big time when he signed with the Scarlets. But after playing only six games for them last season and being loaned out to the Leicester Tigers owing to a lack of conditioning, the club claimed, he came back to the one place that seems to know how to get the best out of him.
What nobody could have predicted was the telepathic relationship he would have with Pienaar. While the older man has pulled the strings from halfback, Blommetjies – still full of elusive running – has run off him to devastating effect.
In addition to Pienaar and Blommetjies, players across the Cheetahs roster have taken their turns in the spotlight.
Flyhalf Tian Schoeman may not be highly rated outside of Bloemfontein, but when he has played in Currie Cup games, the Cheetahs have won. Hooker Joseph Dweba is the latest in a lengthening line of robust, ball-carrying hookers in South Africa. No.8 Henco Venter, nephew to the late Springbok flanker Ruben Kruger, is indefatigable in the carry. And flanker Junior Pokomela is starting to realise the immense potential he displayed as Curwin Bosch’s teammate at Grey High School in Port Elizabeth.
Cheetahs’ secret weapon
But the man who has become the Cheetahs’ secret weapon, towering over his Cheetahs teammates, is 2m-tall lock Sintu Manjezi. He has gone from being an ex-blindside flank who, as a skilful player, liked the velvety side of the game to being knee-deep in the dirty work.
Manjezi – once a right-arm fast bowler as a junior cricketer, until a certain Kagiso Rabada encouraged him to reconsider his options by nearly taking his head off with a bouncer at the Coca-Cola Khaya Majola Week tournament for young cricketers – has thrown his 109kg about to impressive effect for the Cheetahs. A better-conditioned and more physical Manjezi has done ridiculous work either side of the ball.
The 24-year-old is the second-highest turnover merchant in rucks in the competition, the second-highest ball-stealer in line-outs, one of the Cheetahs’ top tacklers, the main source of momentum for their rolling maul and the chief staller of the opposition’s line-out drive. Plus, he’s also the first arrival at both the first attacking and defensive rucks.
What the latter part means is that Manjezi is a lock forward who moonlights a little heavily as an openside flanker. What that suggests in English is that at any given time he is marking two people, his direct opposite number and the opposition’s openside – in the Lions’ case, Marvin Orie and Marnus Schoeman.
While the Cheetahs may have struggled to move tickets for the final – they had sold 32 000 of a potential 45 000 at the time of publication – the game itself should be something approaching a classic between two teams as skilful as they are supremely conditioned.
Aside from skill and fitness, other similarities between the two sides are that they both love keeping the ball away from the opposition, for two to three minutes at a time, and they both do their most lethal work in the final quarter. This means we’re in for a match that will likely be clinched in the last minutes of the game. The differences are that the Lions kick more than the Cheetahs, who rely on turnover balls to punish the opposition.
To that end, the Lions will look to exploit the Cheetahs’ back three of Tian Meyer, William Small-Smith and Blommetjies, the former two because they are essentially a scrumhalf and a centre, and the latter because he backs his ability to run the ball back so much that bravado could expose his team. For a competition to which nobody has paid much attention, the Currie Cup final promises to be a memorable one.