The Dragons scrumhalf, Sarel Pretorius, has tipped his former team, the Toyota Cheetahs, to reach the play-offs of the Guinness Pro14.
At just about the halfway mark of the competition, the Cheetahs are well placed to finish in the top six of the 14-team competition in what is their inaugural season.
Eyebrows were raised after the Cheetahs lost to both Ulster (in Belfast) and Munster (in Limerick) in their first two games of their campaign.
Immediately the doomsayers slammed the decision to enter the two South African franchises into the European competition. Sadly the two teams took more flak from home than in the Northern Hemisphere.
The team’s first win came in round 3 against the Italian outfit, in what was a close and hard-fought battle, however, people weren’t overly convinced yet. Round 4 proved to be the defining moment for the team when they beat a much more fancied and star-studded Leinster in Bloemfontein in one of the most impressive displays.
Next in the firing line was the Welsh outfit, Ospreys, who was taught somewhat of a rugby lesson in the City of Roses. The Cheetahs’ first and only home defeat came the following week when the unbeaten Glasgow Warriors managed to edge them in a truly thrilling encounter. An away victory over Zebre in Italy was followed by a hugely disappointing loss to Connacht in Galway.
Since then the Cheetahs also beat Edinburgh and Scarlets in Bloemfontein to finish their year lying in third in Conference A, and having beaten the three top teams in Conference B (Scarlets, Leinster and Edinburgh).
Pretorius, who plays his rugby in Newport, believes that the Cheetahs are perfectly setup to reach the knock-out stages in 2018. However, the Cheetahs need three vital wins in January when they face Benetton Rugby in Treviso, and the Southern Kings (away and home). Super Sarel, as he was affectionately known by the Cheetahs faithful, says the Free Staters need to win the home games and a few on the road.
“I really don’t think teams think that the Cheetahs don’t belong in the Pro14 anymore. Everyone is talking about them and asking me what I think about them joining the competition. On top of that, they are surprised about why they are doing so well.
“I normally tell them that the Cheetahs have two secret weapons and that is the Toyota Stadium and altitude.
“Teams find it tough to go to Bloemfontein. It’s not an easy place to go and play, if you’re not used to it.
“I have been in the away change room before when I played for the Waratahs in the Super Rugby and the boys always complain about the altitude.
“So, I think that if the Cheetahs can win all their home games and win two or three away games, they stand a good chance to reach the play-offs.
“That will be a great achievement in the first year joining the competition. Come next season they know what to expect and have a better view about the comp. But I think they’re going to do very well this year and it’s great for Free State and South African Rugby.” – MORGAN PIEK