Rugby: Breaking new ground

The Cheetahs practising their line-out technique during a short training session at the National Stadium. Coach Franco Smith hopes the Springboks' shock loss to Japan in last year's World Cup will motivate his team.
The Cheetahs practising their line-out technique during a short training session at the National Stadium. Coach Franco Smith hopes the Springboks' shock loss to Japan in last year's World Cup will motivate his team.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Cheetahs want to kick-start season but must not underestimate 'unknown' Sunwolves

They will be playing in a new city, in a new stadium and against a new opponent. But as South Africa's Cheetahs prepare to take on Japan's Sunwolves in what will be Super Rugby's debut match in Singapore at the National Stadium this evening, they find themselves in unwelcome yet familiar territory.

Having lost to the Jaguares and the Stormers in their opening two games, the Cheetahs are displaying form reminiscent of previous seasons, where, contrary to what their name suggests, they have been notoriously slow starters.

In 2008 and again in 2009, they lost their first five games. It was only last year that they won their first two matches of the season - a feat never achieved since making their league debut in 2006.

Having finished fourth or last out of the five South African franchises in eight of their last 10 seasons, a third consecutive defeat could condemn the wounded Cheetahs to another season of mediocrity.

But Cheetahs vice-captain Francois Uys is not worried. "I don't think there are too many (tactical) changes," the lock said at yesterday's pre-match press conference at the National Stadium.

"I think one of the best ways (to improve) is to try and focus, especially at the start, and try to be excellent in what we've planned.

"I think the biggest change we need to undergo before tomorrow is in our mindset, in the way we go about it, and just be more excellent in everything we do."

A meeting against newcomers Sunwolves could be just what Uys and Co. need to get going.

The new Japanese franchise, who will be playing the first of three home matches in the Republic, are co-based in Tokyo, where they lost their maiden game 13-26 to South African outfit the Lions last month.

The Sunwolves' pre-season troubles have been well documented, with problems regarding player recruitment and a lack of pre-season preparation. Former All-Black Mark Hammett was only confirmed as coach in December.

With the Sunwolves projected to struggle, they could be easy prey for the Cheetahs.

The Cheetahs will be without key player Lood de Jager, the only team member to have featured in the national side. They still, however, have more players with Super Rugby experience than the Sunwolves.

Undeterred by the odds, Sunwolves fly-half Tusi Pisi is eager for his new team to do the talking on the pitch. The 33-year-old Samoan national player said: "I know we had a short pre-season but we have really worked hard mingling with each other and trying to get everyone settled in as a team.

"There are no excuses about communication or short preparation, it's just about going out there and executing what we train. That's the bottom line."

Despite having more Super Rugby experience, Cheetahs coach Franco Smith concedes that their opponents are an "unknown" factor, and that it is "difficult to prepare (a tactical approach)" due to the fact that they have played only one Super Rugby match so far.

The Sunwolves had a bye in the second round of matches.

Yet, Smith is hoping the Springboks' shock defeat by Japan in last year's Rugby World Cup will serve as motivation to his team, as they seek a morale-boosting first win of the season.

The former Springbok said: "Can't say that (the defeat) hasn't crossed our minds... compliments to the Japanese side with the way they played that game. Hopefully that is a wake-up call for South Africa."

SUNWOLVES V CHEETAHS

Singtel TV Ch120 & StarHub Ch217, 6.50pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2016, with the headline 'BREAKING NEW GROUND'. Print Edition | Subscribe