The Cheetahs get their campaign underway when they host tournament debutants the Jaguares in a highly anticipated clash in Bloemfontein on Friday.
The home side start their campaign once again with their backs to the wall after losing the services of several first choice-players ahead of the new season.
Despite that setback, Franco Smith’s side did well in their pre-season friendlies – beating the Bulls and the Kings – and their head coach is quietly confident ahead of the tournament opener.
“The hard work has already been done – but it’s time now to look at more of the finer detail of our preparation, and in particular to what it’s going to take to beat the Jaguares,” he told Netwerk24.
Smith, who took over from Naka Drotske with two Super Rugby matches remaining last year, revealed that the Cheetahs shifted their focus to their scrums and defence as they aim to become a complete team.
They can especially expect a stern test from the Jaguares in the first area – a facet of play in which Argentinian sides seldom take a backward step.
The Jaguares, who have more than 30 players with Test experience in their contracted squad, have come into Super Rugby amidst plenty of hype and are expected to give a strong account of themselves in their opener and during the rest of the tournament.
With world class players like captain Agustín Creevy, Santiago Cordero and Nicolás Sánchez in their ranks they are being regarded as potential challengers for the title.
Despite that, their head coach Raúl Pérez was cautious ahead of their opener against the Cheetahs.
“We know we have a very good squad but on the other hand we realise it’s our first year in the competition and we’ll have to face many new things,” he told Reuters.
“We are very proud that many experts consider us as a potentially strong force in Super Rugby but we must be cognisant of our inexperience and having to play at a much higher level than we are used to, week in and week out. We have to be cautious.”
Players to Watch: In Boom Prinsloo the Cheetahs have a superb loose forward, who is always in the thick of the action. Prinsloo finished as South Africa’s highest try-scorer in last year’s tournament with eight tries. His ball-carrying is his biggest strength, along with being solid in defence and good on the ground.
For the Jaguares, keep an eye on diminutive winger Santiago Cordero who if he finds the ball in space, is sure to light up this match with his pace and brilliant side-stepping. The 22-year-old was one of Argentina’s stars at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England and is one of the best finishers in the game, and should keep the Cheetahs defenders busy.
Team news: Outside centre Francois Venter will skipper the Cheetahs while Springbok lock Lood de Jager is vice captain and former Sharks player Fred Zeilinga starts at fly-half. Venter is joined in midfield by William Small-Smith while Sean Venter starts at scrum-half. Clayton Blommetjies lines up at full-back with Sergeal Petersen and Raymond Rhule the starting wings.
The Jaguares will be led by Argentina’s World cup skipper Creevy who is joined in the front row by Ramiro Herrera and Lucas Noguera while Tomás Lavanini and Guido Petti are the starting locks and Leonardo Senatore, Pablo Matera and Rodrigo Báez form the back row combination. Twelve of the players in the starting XV started in Argentina’s Rugby World Cup pool match with Tonga, while 10 were in the run-on side in Los Pumas’ semi-final loss to Australia.
Form: The Cheetahs kicked off their pre-season with a hard-fought 28-10 victory over the Bulls in Zimbabwe. They then defeated the Kings 24-11 victory over the Kings in Port Elizabeth.
The Jaguares have been in South Africa for two weeks already and in their opening warm-up match, they gave a good account of themselves before suffering a 29-14 defeat to the Stormers in Cape Town. In their second clash, they scored seven tries in a 49-28 win over the Lions in Johannesburg.
This will be the first match between these two sides.
Cheetahs: 15 Clayton Blommetjies, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Francois Venter (c), 12 William Small-Smith, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Fred Zeilinga, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Niell Jordaan, 7 Uzair Cassiem, 6 Boom Prinsloo, 5 Lood de Jager, 4 Carl Wegner, 3 Maks van Dyk, 2 Torsten van Jaarsveld, 1 Charles Marais
Replacements: 16 Jacques du Toit, 17 Ox Nche, 18 Luan de Bruin, 19 Reniel Hugo, 20 Henco Venter, 21 Paul Schoeman, 22 Tian Meyer, 23 Niel Marais
Jaguares: 15 Joaquín Tuculet, 14 Santiago Cordero, 13 Matías Moroni, 12 Jerónimo De la Fuente, 11 Emiliano Boffelli, 10 Nicolás Sánchez, 9 Martín Landajo, 8 Leonardo Senatore, 7 Rodrigo Báez, 6 Pablo Matera, 5 Tomás Lavanini, 4 Guido Petti, 3 Ramiro Herrera, 2 Agustín Creevy (c), 1 Lucas Noguera
Replacements: 16 Julián Montoya, 17 Santiago García Botta, 18 Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, 19 Matías Alemanno, 20 Facundo Isa, 21 Gonzalo Bertranou, 22 Santiago González Iglesias, 23 Matías Orlando
Date: Friday, February 26
Venue: Toyota Stadium, Bloemfontein
Kick-off: 19:10 local (17:10 GMT)
Referee: Stuart Berry (South Africa)
Assistant Referees: Rasta Rasivhenge (South Africa), Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)