The Western Force begin their tour of South Africa with a trip to Bloemfontein. Considering some of the bear pits teams have to travel to in Africa, it could be argued that the Free State Stadium is one of the least daunting. Yet, you must not let the lowly standing the Cheetahs have in the ladder fool you into thinking this will be an easy game for the Force.
The Cheetahs have a unique style, completely at odds with the other South African franchises. They play high tempo, high intensity football, slinging the ball from side to side. They rarely commit more than three men to a ruck and their forwards are equally skillful through the hands as their backs. There is nowhere to “hide” for tight forwards in Bloomfontein as the Cheetahs use the full breadth of the park, and mismatches are created virtually in every encounter no matter the opposition.
The conditions can be sapping for traveling teams as the altitude takes something from the lungs. Combined with the expansiveness of the Cheetahs game, and you have what will be a brutal encounter for the bigger Perth forwards. They will certainly be a sorry bunch of boys coming off that park, win lose or draw.
The Cheetahs have several truly star players in their ranks also. Willie Le Roux is as an elusive runner as you can get in Super Rugby. He is unpredictable in his positional play and can turn up anywhere. Adiaan Strauss is as good a hooker is there is in the world not named Bismarck Du Plessis. Heinrich Brussow is a menace at every breakdown, and only his diminutive stature has denied him more Springbok caps where size is virtually all that matters.
And yet…… why are they not a top six side on the ladder? How is it that they suffer more defeats than earn victories? The answer is their porous defence. They are as water tight as a colander under a tap. They miss an incredible amount of first up tackles, and their positioning after a few phases would remind you of a scattered under ten game down your local park. The good teams can always break through them and put points on the board no matter what.
The Force have had a season to remember. They have beaten a lot of the big boys so far and the Cheetahs will look like another notch on the bedpost. The most important thing against the Cheetahs is to deny them the ball. Holding onto the ball will suck the Cheetahs in before unleashing the backline. Scores will no doubt arrive by the bucketful. The forwards must have look up to see where Brussow is lurking and belt him if he comes to contest, but apart from that, it should be straight forward to make yards around the field.
Loose kicking is a no-no today, as the Cheetahs need no second invitation to attack from everywhere. As a result, I feel that the Force can afford to keep it in hand and look for touch. Basic rugby is the key today and that’s what the Force have excelled at all year. So far the Force have been willing to let other teams have the ball and then counter attack once a turnover is earned. They need to adjust this, and keep the ball a little longer in hand.
Ian Prior is selected at half back, and the jury is still out. Alby Matthewson has been phenomenal and adds a different dimension to the Force and remains a huge loss. All in all it looks a very settled and strong side the Force are deploying today.
In my opinion, this game is the Force’s to lose. The Cheetahs are outrageously good at attacking but absolutely woeful in defence. They are heartbreakingly vulnerable to structured sides, and the Western Force fit the template like a glove. The Force’s structures are as sound as any in the competition.
Expect the Force to leak a couple of wonder tries like every other side that travels to Bloemfontein, but they will answer in kind with double that.
The Force to win by 14
Over and out,