Cheetahs need to lose inferiority complex
As I was sitting down on Sunday morning – like many other rugby fans – to watch the Toyota Cheetahs’ quest for success in their first Vodacom Super Rugby Finals Series match in Canberra, I couldn’t help but recalling a conversation in Bloemfontein the night the Bulls and Cheetahs had their showdown a few weeks ago.
Talking to the local journalists – fervent Cheetahs men in their own right – I was taken aback by their lack of confidence, their lack of belief in a team that had done exceptionally well this season.
Not that they didn’t believe in their team, you see, but they had been so disappointed on so many occasions by the Bloemfontein rugby brigade that they were enjoying every moment, only waiting for their bubble to burst.
One long-time scribe in Bloemfontein approached me with the thought that it was indeed that night where the fairytale would end, and that the Cheetahs don’t have a hope in making it to the playoffs.
He was almost apologetic, hinting his team had their run of success, but would now quietly crawl back into their corner and take their punishment.
I was reasonably shocked. Here we were with the Cheetahs, at that moment, above the Bulls on the log and with a bye in hand, and their local reporters were already writing their obituaries.
But as I thought about it later, it wasn’t that surprising at all. While we all love to say that the Cheetahs are everyone’s second team, they have fallen short in promising seasons on so many occasions that the belief often isn’t there.
If you look at the crowds, and the support the team often gets for top games, it is clear this isn’t just an isolated thing; there is a real inferiority complex among Cheetahs supporters.
I know many will point out how they have the best rugby factory in the world in Grey College and how they continually develop young talent, only to lose them to other provinces, but there is certainly something special happening in Bloemfontein at the moment.
Coach Naka Drotske and his team have found a winning recipe – a formula that has given them their best season ever and they should be lauded for it.
The key element has been their defensive system, which has improved significantly and has seen them win games they often would lose in the past.
It is something to be celebrated, to be proud of and to build on.
I remember Heyneke Meyer – way back in 2002, when he won his first Absa Currie Cup title – surprising us in a sideline chat by saying his team weren’t happy at being the best team in South Africa.
They wanted to be the best in the world – they wanted not only to emulate the Crusaders, but to become spoken of in the same breath as the New Zealand super team.
It is this sort of vision that has built the Bulls as a brand, that has made Loftus Versfeld a place that overseas teams fear and has seen the Bulls build up a success rate in Super Rugby that is the envy of many others.
So now, while the Cheetahs may still be licking their wounds at just falling short in Canberra, they have tasted success, and they should be hungry for more.
The recipe isn’t an easy one, but they have already found it on the field, and need to build further on it. Drotske and co, and their supporters, cannot be satisfied any longer with the odd appearance in the finals.
It now has to become a consistent factor in the competition; Bloemfontein should become a place where opposition teams consistently lose.
For that to happen, the Cheetahs supporters need to drop their inferiority complex, realise they have a good team that can get better and get behind them.
They need to turn up at the stadium and give the team a crowd worth playing for, they need to build a wave of momentum that can underline this success and make it a starting point for greatness, not just another blip of success on the calendar.
The team have done their part – with limited resources – to become a force in Super Rugby.
They now need to push on. They need to temper that hunger and shake off the Cinderella tag that has plagued them over the years.
Their style of play has shown that with a few adjustments they can be every bit as successful as the other teams. Good planning has ensured a mostly injury-free season and they have been rewarded with a number of Springbok call-ups in the process.
The likes of Willie le Roux, Piet van Zyl, Trevor Nyakane, Phillip van der Walt, Lappies Labuschagne, Robert Ebersohn, Lood de Jager, Lourens Adriaanse and Johann Sadie have all come into their own and joined Heinrich Brussow, Adriaan Strauss and Coenie Oosthuizen in increasing their stature in the game.
Now is the time to celebrate that success, then to consolidate it and use it as a building block for more.
So while they fell short in Canberra, well done to Naka Drotske and his coaching team. They deserve the plaudits for a wonderful season.
But now that you’ve shown the potential, know we expect more from you. Now that you’ve tasted success, we expect you to want more as well.
After all, Canberra can’t be your Everest. That’s something that every South African supporter will agree on.