Congratulations to the Cheetahs on their convincing victory over Leinster in Bloemfontein’s Free State Stadium 38-19.
This game is bound to be used as a yardstick to compare the Pro 14 to Super Rugby. The Cheetahs have had a mixed start, but this victory will make people sit up and notice. The Cheetahs never threatened in Super Rugby, but here they are beating Leinster. Even at this early stage, the experiment of South African club inclusion into the Pro 14 appears to be working.
Leinster has been a major force in European club rugby for the last two decades. They have been European Champions three times and Celtic champions four times. This is not something to be sniffed at. They were also unbeaten this season heading into the match with the Cheetahs.
Compare this with the Cheetahs who only won 4 Super Rugby games this season and were badly beaten in Ireland by Munster and Ulster. At home, in the Pro 14, they have won both of their games, including a 54-39 victory over Italy’s Zebre.
On Wednesday, two Leinster players Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park were sent back to Ireland by South Africa customs. They are both New Zealand passport holders and did not have the required visa. The Irish passport holders do not need a visa. It truly is becoming a global game but is a lesson that needs to be taken on board. This was poor from the Leinster backroom staff.
Also, the Cheetahs were not facing the strongest of Leinster teams, even outside the customs issues. Leinster were missing two locks (second rows) as their wives are close to having babies. Add to this their mounting injury crisis, and you can paint your own picture. Among those ruled out through injury were Dan Leavy (ankle), Rob Kearney (hamstring), Jamie Heaslip (lower back), Richardt Strauss (knee) and Garry Ringrose (shoulder).
Regardless of personnel, the Cheetahs deserved their bonus point victory. They executed a solid first phase game, a powerful pick and go, and showed speed in the backs. Their defensive game has improved significantly during the first four games in the Pro 14. In their first games in Ireland, the defence seemed disorganized and unable to handle the tactical difference between the two hemispheres. This has changed. It will be interesting to see what it is like when they return to Europe.
We now have the first opportunity to make direct comparisons between southern hemisphere rugby clubs with their northern hemisphere counterparts. In this case, a top European rugby club has been beaten by a Super Rugby team whose best season was 2013 when they were 6th. I think the Pro 14 is well worth watching this season.
Aside from the rugby, I do hope the crowds in South Africa get larger or the stadiums get smaller. The 7,000 spectators looked lost in Bloemfontein, but perhaps that will improve as confidence grows?
Is it a one-off? Will other European teams send stronger sides? Will the Cheetahs be taken more seriously? What are your thoughts on this victory for the Cheetahs?
Author: John Francis