Super Rugby: No de Jager so Venter urges others to step up

Even though they are without their strongest player Lood de Jager, South Africa's Cheetahs are counting on their fitness to deliver their first win of the Super Rugby season.

De Jager, a 23-year-old lock who played for the Springboks at last year's Rugby World Cup, where he scored the third of the team's four tries in their shock 32-34 loss to Japan, was excluded from the 25-player travelling squad.

His exclusion is due to the Springboks' agreement with the league, which stipulates that national players must be given a game's rest after a maximum of five matches.

The only Cheetah player to feature for the Springboks, he had played in three warm-up matches and the Cheetahs' two opening games.

Nonetheless, coach Franco Smith felt that a break for de Jager, the 2015 South Africa Rugby Player of the Year, would help the player recharge after a gruelling schedule last year, which also saw him play for the Barbarians, a South African invitational side.

Said Smith: "Due to his late finish to the season, he started conditioning with us late, and we involved him only in December. So this rest will do him some good and help him to reload."

Captain Francois Venter called on his team-mates to step up in de Jager's absence. The 24-year-old said: "Lood is an exceptional player, and we'll miss him. But no player is indispensable or irreplaceable. We just have to adapt, and it's the chance for others to step up."

De Jager's absence is not the only challenge the team have to cope with here. They also have to deal with the humid conditions that usually drain foreign athletes.

But coming from Bloemfontein, which is 1,395m above sea level, could give the Cheetahs an edge in fitness and endurance.

"The amount of oxygen available will suit us, because we come from one of the highest places in South Africa. The altitude helps us when we travel. It'll be important in the last 20 minutes, because that is when players might cramp up, but we'll be able to manage that," said Smith.

In fact, the demanding conditions shaped their preparations before they arrived yesterday morning following a 10-hour flight from Johannesburg.

Venter said: "We wet the ball during our training because we know that the humidity makes us sweat more and the ball becomes more slippery and harder to control."

But other than their preparations, the game plan remains the same. "We want to get the first win," he declared.

Alvin Chia

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 11, 2016, with the headline 'No de Jager so Venter urges others to step up'. Print Edition | Subscribe