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Cheetahs prosper through collaboration

Prior to the start of the 2013 Super Rugby season fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the Cheetahs would challenge the Kings for the wooden spoon.

However, some strong play coupled with a touch of good fortune – having drawn a number of the weaker teams – has seen the men from Bloemfontein achieve four wins in a row, which has instilled confidence and belief.

In my opinion though, the Cheetahs’ greatest area of improvement has been on defence.

When Naka Drotske studied the stats following their tenth-place finish in 2012, defence would have been the one facet of play which required the most remedy.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer deserves credit as it was thanks to him that the Cheetahs management were able to pick the brain of renowned defence guru John McFarland for three days earlier in the season.

McFarland along with fellow members of the Springbok coaching staff have also visited the other South African franchises.

I chatted to John Mitchell a while back and he mentioned that key role players within New Zealand rugby have for a long time advocated information-sharing.

In a South African rugby context, I think this is the first time that we can potentially get all our teams pulling in the same direction.

In terms of play, what is most apparent is that the Cheetahs aren’t committing as many numbers to the breakdown as they did previously and are therefore able to make more double hits.

In seasons past, they were waiting for the opposition to make the first move, but this season their line speed and physicality has improved drastically.

Their defence currently resembles a typical Bulls-driven structure, which is far more abrasive and confrontational. The greatest challenge for the Cheetahs is now to sustain consistency. By all accounts they have already exceeded expectations this season; therefore it requires a shift in mindset more than anything else to propel them to the next level. The Stormers match this Saturday represents an ideal opportunity for the home side to further test their renewed resolve.

The Stormers are wounded and certainly won’t settle for their current log standing. The Cape side will be desperate and thus this game will prove a great measure of just how much the Cheetahs have progressed.

While it must be said that stand-in flyhalf Burton Francis played a brilliant game last week against the Rebels, I still fully expect the Stormers to target their former pivot.

They won’t do so by attempting to run over him – the tactic Jake White employed against Elton Jantjies – but will rather examine his positional play, where he stands on attack and then adapt their defence accordingly.

The Stormers defence is geared towards teams that play with plenty of width as they don’t commit too many numbers to the breakdown.

This was apparent in their clash with the Crusaders, who were then able to take the ball through countless phases. While the Cheetahs will certainly look to target the Stormers’ lineout, having lost six the week prior, I think it was simply a case of the Stormers becoming complacent in an area which has proved such a strong point.

Matthew Proudfoot is a brilliant forwards coach and there is no doubt he will devise variant strategies for Saturday. In fact, I think the setpiece blip against the Crusaders will do the Stormers a favour going forward.

Much like the Cheetahs’ test against the Stormers, the Sharks’ clash with Crusaders will offer greater clarity as to whether the Durban side are genuine title contenders or simply pretenders.

Prior to their bye, the Sharks beat a poor Rebels side and now come up against a highly-physical and determined Crusaders team.

The visitors possess a great lineout, work unbelievably hard on defence and cheat subtly at the breakdown. What the Crusaders do so well is that they cheat in numbers. If for example, a single player comes from the side illegally it’s far more obvious for the referee to spot than if say two players come through the gate correctly and another three don’t.

The big issue at the moment is that because referees want flow in the game, they don’t want to penalise every single infringement. However, the ensuing play is then a consequence of the previous illegality.

The Crusaders are not going to give the Sharks anything for free and if the home side are slightly off their game they will lose to a highly-motivated, well-coached and well-organised team from Christchurch.

In my view, the Sharks’ biggest problem is that they blow hot and cold. They fire one week and fade the next. However, they require no added motivation this week as they are aware that a win on Friday will further cement their standing atop the South African conference.

If both teams play to their potential, I believe the Sharks should win – owing to home ground advantage and a side made up of more potential game-breakers.

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