Preview: Cheetahs vs Highlanders
The Toyota Cheetahs will be looking to upset the apple cart and win their first-ever match against the Highlanders when they host the team from Otago at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein on Saturday afternoon.
Six defeats from six starts don’t make for great reading, and the Free Staters realise it won’t be easy against the second-placed team in the New Zealand Conference, but they will still approach the game with confidence after their break last weekend.
Said Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss: “The bye came just at the right time. We’ve had a couple of good training sessions this week and the players are looking forward to this weekend’s match. It is a must win for us to get out confidence back.”
The Cheetahs have had an up and down season. After returning from their best-ever tour Down Under, they beat the Lions at home before going down to the Chiefs, also in Bloemfontein.
As they look to beat the Highlanders for the first time since the Cats franchise split after the 2005 season, the Cheetahs will take some confidence from one of the best-ever performances by a South African team to New Zealand, when the Free State surprised the team from Otago by 49-18 in 1997.
Sure, the Highlanders did struggle in 1997, but the visitors to Dunedin scored seven converted tries and the 49 points they racked up has since only been beaten by the DHL Stormers (51 against the Blues in 2004) and the Sharks (59 against the Reds in 2007) of the South African franchises in a match overseas.
Naka Drotské, coach of the Cheetahs, said: “The Highlanders play with a lot of confidence, especially amongst their younger players. They started the season very well, which has helped cement their place amongst the front runners. It will be a big challenge on Saturday.”
Key Battle: Heinrich Brussow vs. Adam Thomson. The Highlanders’ success stems from their dynamic play at the breakdown and it is here where Brussow will need to come to the fore for the Cheetahs to ensure the visitors don’t get quick, clean ball to work with.
Last Meeting: Highlanders 24-21 Cheetahs (Dunedin).
Prediction: There is always a sense of optimism when the Cheetahs play in Bloemfontein. They cannot afford a second successive defeat at home to New Zealand opposition and are in with a real shout against the Highlanders.
It will be an intense battle up front where WP Nel will be thoroughly tested by the monstrous Jamie Mackintosh and Adriaan Strauss will face his hard-nosed equal in All Black veteran Andrew Hore.
Patience with ball in hand and discipline on defence will be key in this fixture. The Cheetahs have what it takes to take this one, but our gut says the Highlanders will pull off a robbery in Bloemfontein. Highlanders by five points.
Saturday 28 April: Cheetahs vs. Highlanders, Bloemfontein (17:05)
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Cameron Jacobs, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Willie le Roux, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Tewis de Bruyn, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Justin Downey, 6 Heinrich Brüssow, 5 Izak van der Westhuizen, 4 Andries Ferreira, 3 WP Nel, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Coenie Oosthuizen.
Replacements: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Trevor Nyakane, 18 George Earle, 19 Ashley Johnson, 20 Piet van Zyl, 21 Sias Ebersohn, 22 Philip Snyman.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Buxton Popoali'i, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Mike Delany, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 James Haskell, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Chris King, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (captain).
Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Ma'afu Fia, 18 Culum Retallick, 19 Doug Tietjens, 20 Jimmy Cowan, 21 Chris Noakes, 22 Siale Piutau.