The Guinness Pro 14 round twenty game of the weekend is in Bloemfontein as the Toyota Cheetahs lock horns against Munster Rugby. A fixture with massive playoff ramifications. If Toyota Cheetahs can win this contest, they will close right up on Munster Rugby who themselves know that a win here would secure second place in Conference A. This blog posting looks at the Toyota Cheetahs side, identifies the key players to watch out from the South African side and what to expect from the side who have taken to the league incredibly well.
Fortress Free State Stadium
Toyota Cheetahs have tasted defeat only once at the confines of the Free State Stadium this season in Guinness Pro 14 action. A narrow 26-29 loss to Glasgow Warriors back in October is quite a while ago and the Toyota Cheetahs have developed their cohesion and attacking threat since then.
There have being a couple of close contests in recent home fixtures. The last gasp penalty to beat a gutsy Connacht Rugby in round seventeen. The decisive penalty try to beat Cardiff Blues in round nineteen showing the side’s sheer desire and determination to play to the final minute.
The altitude factor comes into the equation as well. It will be interesting to see how Munster Rugby management rotate their twenty-three man squad for this fixture. Substitutions potentially may need to be made earlier in the contest given the elevation of 1,400 meters.
The effect of the altitude can be seen when Ireland Rugby played South Africa in 2016 at Johannesburg which is 1,753 meters above sea level. Ireland built up a sizable lead against the hosts, only to surrender the lead with three tries conceded in the final quarter. The elevation effect had an enormous effect.
The kicking game during this contest will be fascinating as well. The game plan of Marais and potentially Ian Keatley if selected will be intriguing to watch. The ball will travel further, the ball will bounce higher and for the visiting Munster side, this may take time to adapt to. The danger of kicks going dead is a high probability and the prospect of long range penalty kicks going over from 50+ meters is a distinct reality.
Toyota Cheetahs Player Watch
Clayton Blommetjies has had a superb Guinness Pro 14 debut season. The full back has won plenty of admirers with devastating line breaks this season. Clayton Blommetjies will ply his trade with Scarlets next season which is a shrewd piece of business from the Welsh region. Blommetjies statistics from last week were excellent. 123 meters gained during the round nineteen contest against Cardiff Blues. The player will look to break the line at every opportunity so Munster Rugby’s defensive line speed and structures will need to be on point.
Francois Venter at thirteen is a key cog in this side. He has all the attributes; physicality, line speed and ability to pass with quick and efficiency. His ability to find the soft defensive shoulder seen to the fore in recent weeks and his supporting lines for colleagues with the ball is impressive. His try against Blues last weekend was just reward for excellent support running to receive the ball from scrum half Tian Meyer to score from close range. Another player who will ply his trade away from the Toyota Cheetahs next season (joins Worcester Warriors next season), a big loss for the Toyota Cheetahs.
Sibahle Maxwane on the wing along with William Small-Smith provide genuine width out wide to score at regular intervals for the side. Both players are incredibly pacy and can make a line break from nothing. Their tries this season have shown various traits of their game, ability to attack grubber kicks / diagonal kicks as well as providing good supporting lines to their team mates with ball in hand on point. Dangerous threats.
Tian Meyer provides experience at nine. His game management has being on point this season with ball carries around fringes pretty prominent. Forty-two meters gained last week against Cardiff Blues is a reminder to Munster Rugby’s back row and half backs to be defensively on point on Meyer. Good kicking game to complement Niel Marais at ten whose has being consistent with his penalty kicking in recent weeks. Marais will take the game to Munster Rugby on the gain line, looking to unleash Venter at thirteen.
The Toyota Cheetahs as an unit are abrasive with several physical ball carriers whose ability to link play with colleagues with efficient offloading seen to full effect in recent rounds. Wegner and Hugo were prominent last week particularly in the opening period. Cassiem at eight carried for thirty-seven meters off seven possessions. The front row wore Cardiff Blues down in the set piece; their replacement front row pivotal in the penalty try reward, putting their visitors under massive pressure.
Toyota Cheetahs Next Season?
As eluded to in the players to watch section, several prominent Toyota Cheetahs players will play their rugby with UK rugby clubs next season. Rory Duncan has also decided to join Worcester Warriors from the start of next season.
It will be interesting to see how the Toyota Cheetahs recruit to offset the losses of Venter and Blommetjies particularly. It would be a shame if the Toyota Cheetahs regress next season after such a promising debut season in the Guinness Pro 14 this year. Hopefully the club and the South African RFU work together to offset the departures with excellent squad and managerial personnel additions but there are concerns.
What to expect Friday night?
A distinct clash of styles is the striking opening thoughts. Toyota Cheetahs will look to create an uptempo, expansive style of play with players looking to offload at every given opportunity. Munster Rugby by contrast may look to play more structured in the opening period and then eventually open up as the game stretches out. Their bonus point try victory in George showed that the Irish province have threats with ball in hand in the open exchanges.
This will be a superb fixture for Munster Rugby to prepare for the Racing 92 European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final. The Toyota Cheetahs will throw different looks at this Munster outfit. When you couple this with an all South African officiating crew (who may officiate the breakdown differently), the visitors will be asked to adapt to the officiating style. An exciting game beckons!
Expect Munster Rugby to look to test the Toyota Cheetahs back three in the aerial battle as well as look to build a platform with the front five in the opening period. The contrast in styles will be fascinating to watch. Hopefully, a good run out for Munster Rugby with no injuries ahead of European Cup action. It is all set for an exciting Pro 14 Conference A end of season! Roll on Friday!