The Force commence their two-game South African tour this week in Bloemfontein, determined to bolster their finals prospects with a win over the Cheetahs on Saturday (May 10).
The Cheetahs come off a close loss to the Bulls away, while the well-rested Force look to pick up where they left off this week, following the bye.
The high-flying Force are 5th on the log, and in order to be taken seriously as finals contenders, they need to beat the bottom-ranked Cheetahs. But as history shows, it is not that simple (especially in the Republic), as the Cheetahs won the most recent match in Perth (2013), and last two games between the two in Bloemfontein.
As always, the setpiece battle is crucial. The Cheetahs have the superior scrum and lineout based on completion rate, so it will be an area of strength for them against the men from Perth, whose setpiece has malfunctioned the last few games.
The Cheetahs’ reputation as a potent attacking team precedes them. In a number of attacking stats, they dominate the Force: they are the 3rd best in terms of tries scored, 5th best at breaking the line, and 4th best in the comp at making metres with ball in hand. Compare that to the Force, who are 9th, 13th and last, respectively.
The Cheetahs have leaked plenty of tries in their first eight games, but since then they have tightened up their defence. Additionally, they have found a balance between running everything off turnover ball, and playing a territory game with more kicking out of their half.
The return of players such as Coenie Oosthuizen and Johan Goosen highlights the enormity of the challenge the Force face. The Cheetahs have threats across the park so the Force’s defence will need to work non-stop for 80 minutes if they want to have any chance of winning.
Moreover, the breakdown will be fiercely contested. A telling stat – the Force are 4th in the comp with a 95% success rate on their own ball, while the Cheetahs are second last at 91%. It is an area the Force might look to get some pay from, especially as the Cheetahs backrow has encountered disruption over the last few weeks.
For the Force, getting the Cheetahs to commit more players into breakdowns rather than realign with numbers in attack, is the goal; similarly for the Cheetahs.
The Force has named an unchanged lineup for this match.
The Cheetahs has named two Springboks to start this weekend. Flyhalf Johan Goosen (concussion) replaces Elgar Watts, while tighthead prop Maks van Dyk makes way for prop Coenie Oosthuizen.
Coach Naka Drotske has named winger Raymond Rhule in the team, despite incurring a possible ankle injury against the Bulls. If he does not recover in time, Springboks sevens player Cornal Hendricks will take his place in the starting lineup, while Howard Mnisi would be promoted to the bench.
Flanker Jean Cook’ injury (shoulder) means versatile loose forward/lock Teboho Mohoje is promoted to the run-on side.
Key Match Ups
Heinrich Brussöw vs. Matt Hodgson
Two wily breakdown operators, they will work in tandem with their forward packs, and feature prominently in what shapes up to be an arm-wrestle. These two experienced men are leaders in their teams. The Cheetahs improvement in defence has largely coincided with Brussöw’s arrival from Japan. Hodgson’s influence on the club culture and teamwork ethic has seen this Force team transform from likely wooden-spooners in to most likely finals contenders. The Cheetahs grow an arm and a leg when Brussöw is on the field, as the Force do with Hodgson playing.
Johan Goosen vs. Sias Ebersohn
The Bloemfontein-born flyhalf Ebersohn returns in what will be his first match at Free State Stadium since he signed for the Force in 2012. A well-rounded pivot with a sound running, passing and kicking game, he plays the role of facilitator at the Force to great effect. Goosen, conversely, is a young, prodigious talent, an elusive runner, and is a prolific point scorer thanks to his huge boot. He burst on to the scene in 2012, and ousted Ebersohn. Expect the two to feature prominently (with their goal kicking for one), and try to one-up each other.
Picking a winner is extremely difficult – so much so that I have changed my winner several times this week.
The table says that this is a game that the Force should win, but the bye often halts many a teams momentum. Added to that, the Cheetahs are starting to play like the team that featured in the finals last year.
The belief that the Force have gained over the last year will improve their chances but the Force’s record in Bloemfontein is not pretty.
Recent form, though says that it will be close game.
Cheetahs by 2.
Force: 1. Pek Cowan, 2. Nathan Charles 3. Kieran Longbottom, 4. Adam Coleman, 5. Sam Wykes, 6. Angus Cottrell, 7. Matt Hodgson (c), 8. Ben McCalman, 9. Ian Prior, 10. Sias Ebersohn, 11. Nick Cummins, 12. Kyle Godwin, 13. Marcel Brache, 14. Dane Haylett-Petty, 15. Jayden Hayward.
Reserves: 16. Heath Tessmann, 17. Tetera Faulkner, 18. Ollie Hoskins, 19. Wilhelm Steenkamp, 20. Brynard Stander, 21. Justin Turner, 22. Zack Holmes, 23. Chris Tuatara-Morrison.
Cheetahs: 1. Caylib Oosthuizen, 2. Adriaan Strauss, 3. Coenie Oosthuizen, 4. Andries Ferreira, 5. Francois Uys, 6. Heinrich Brussow, 7. Teboho Mohoje, 8. Boom Prinsloo, 9. Sarel Pretorius, 10. Johan Goosen, 11. Willie le Roux, 12. Rayno Benjamin, 13. Johann Sadie, 14. Raymond Rhule/Cornal Hendricks, 15. Hennie Deniller.
Reserves: 16. Torsten van Jaarsveld, 17. Trevor Nyakane, 18. Maks van Dyk, 19. Carel Greeff, 20. Waltie Vermeulen, 21. Shaun Venter, 22. Elgar Watts, 23. Cornal Hendricks/Howard Mnisi.
Date: Saturday 10 May
Venue: Free State Stadium
Kick Off local: 17:05
Referee: Chris Pollock
Assistant Ref 1: Marius Jonker
Assistant Ref 2: Francois de Bruin
TMO: Shaun Veldsman