Cheetahs outsiders in Super rugby playoffs

Cheetahs_HuddleThe Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs will celebrate their best season in Super Rugby on Saturday by gate-crashing a playoff party for former champions.

The Cheetahs – who have qualified for the playoffs for the first time -are the only one of the six remaining teams which has never won a Super Rugby title. Their quarterfinal opponents, the ACT Brumbies, have two; the Canterbury Crusaders, who host the other quarterfinal, have seven and their opponents, the Queensland Reds have one.

Two teams received a bye to the semifinal stage: the Hamilton-based Chiefs will defend their only Super Rugby crown and the Pretoria-based Bulls will attempt to win their third title and their first since 2010.

The Cheetahs are unused to being among such illustrious company.

Their best-ever finish was seventh in 1997, after which they left the tournament for nine years. Since rejoining the competition in 2006, they have never finished higher than 10th.

But this season, under former Springboks hooker Naka Drotske, they have perfected one of the most expansive gameplans in the competition, winning 10 of 16 regular-season games and showing an ability – vital to South African teams – of winning in Australia and New Zealand.

They won at the Dunedin-based Highlanders, the New South Wales Waratahs and the Western Force, losing only to the Chiefs on their overseas games.

“We have a confident atmosphere in the team and we know if we play well, we can beat any team on the day,” Drotske said.

“The last two tours – where we have won in Australia – have done our confidence the world of good. And we prefer to play the Brumbies. They are also new to the playoffs and their current group of players hasn’t played in this round of the competition yet, so it is a new thing to them as well.”

The Cheetahs were underestimated by many opponents, and hope to exploit the same advantage on Sunday when the Brumbies, champions of the Australian conference, might take them too lightly.

“We play better as a team when we are underdogs as there is absolutely no pressure on us,” Drotske said.

The Brumbies have been the top team in Australia this season but the confidence of many players may have been dented by being part of an Australia team that was beaten by the British and Irish Lions, while the ACT was also beaten last week in Perth.

Brumbies coach Jake White says veteran flanker George Smith will definitely be among his starting lineup for the match, though Smith had a tough time in the third Lions

test after suffering an early head knock.

The Crusaders have named All Blacks captain Richie McCaw on the bench and international lock Luke Romano in their starting lineup for Saturday’s match at Christchurch.

McCaw expected to miss all of the Super Rugby season during an eight months “sabbatical” which began after New Zealand’s loss to England at Twickenham in December. He was due to return for the All Blacks’ first Rugby Championships match against Australia on Aug. 17 but has answered the Crusaders’ call for late-season reinforcement.

The Crusaders are attempting to win an eighth Super Rugby title. This will be their 12th-straight appearance in the playoffs but the players are not yet jaded.

“You have got to treat it as an honor, not a burden,” scrumhalf Andy Ellis said. “As soon as you think ‘we have been here so many times, we should win it, we should win it’ it just creates anxiety.”

Queensland has named Wallabies James Horwill and Will Genia in their starting lineup, though they have lost center Anthony Faingaa, winger Rod Davies and utility Mike Harris from a backline which has changed in four places after last week’s narrow win over New South Wales.

“There is always going to be some damage at this time of the year and while it’s disappointing to be without a few guys, we are getting the experience of James and Will back,” coach Ewen McKenzie said. “Their influence can’t be understated and you need world-class players and strong leaders if you are going to win these games on the big stage.” – AP