The team’s spirit in the Toyota Free State Cheetahs camp is at an all-time high as the team prepares for this weekend’s Currie Cup semi-final against the Sharks in Bloemfontein.
The Free State Cheetahs are in the semi-finals of the world’s oldest and toughest domestic rugby competition for the first time since 2016, when they went on to be crowned as the eventual champions.
This time around there is a largely new crop of players in the squad, however, there are handful of players who won the Currie Cup three years ago. They include the captain, Tian Meyer; the props, Charles Marais and Ox Nche; the hooker, Jacques du Toit; the fullback, Clayton Blommetjies, and the centre/winger, William Small-Smith. Small-Smith, was not selected for the final back then, however, he played a large majority of the games in that campaign.
The centre, Dries Swanepoel, also played in that particular final, however, back then he still donned the colours of the Blue Bulls. The flyhalf, Tian Schoeman, was another player who played in the 2016 final for the Bulls. In that particular year he was the leading points scorer in the Currie Cup, with a total of 146 points.
The road to the semi-finals has been an interesting one for the Free State Cheetahs, with big wins over both the Blue Bulls (43-27) and Griquas (68-14), while there were late and narrow defeats to the Golden Lions (24-22) and the Sharks (27-20).
In their last two matches in the round-robins, the Free State Cheetahs had to dig deep to come from behind for a 43-37 win over the Pumas in Nelspruit, and then last week’s outstanding fight to come from 19-0 down to beat Western Province 38-33 in Bloemfontein.
The Sharks have shown in the latter stages of the competition they are a quality outfit and one cannot forget that they are the defending champions. They did themselves no favours with a 37-13 defeat to the Griquas in Durban and a 27-20 loss to the Pumas on the Lowveld.
The round-robins are a thing of the past, and to get to the final, the Free State Cheetahs need to focus on the Sharks first, as now it is knockout rugby.
The coach, Franco Smith, told Bloemfontein Courant that while the focus is on this week, the end goal is a sixth Currie Cup title.
“We don’t play this game to lose, so of course we love to go all the way. We started training for this from the first day we got together. We have followed this sequence before in 2016. In 2015-16 we followed the same pattern.
“The game this weekend is the first one. We plan to win the competition. This weekend we are not playing against the Sharks, we are indeed playing against the Currie Cup. We’ve got to be the best we can again, and that will stay the focus. This is just another opportunity to exhibit that, our skill sets, and the way we play.
“We are not looking further than this weekend, but we know that we have prepped to win the competition.”
Smith will be announcing his team for the semi-final on Thursday afternoon, and at this stage everyone who played in the game against Western Province has a clean bill of health and is available for selection.
In the other semi-final, the Lions will be hosting the Griquas at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. This game will kick off at 14:00. Many feel that the final will be a repeat of 2007 when the Free State hosted and beat the Lions in Bloemfontein.
Saturday’s semi-final between the Free State Cheetahs and Sharks at the Toyota Stadium kicks off at 17:00. – MORGAN PIEK