With more than a month to wait before they are next in Guinness PRO 14 action both the Toyota Cheetahs and the Isuzu Southern Kings have extra reason to strain every sinew in quest for much needed victories this coming weekend.
The Kings will be visiting Connacht determined to show that their recent win over the Ospreys, their first on overseas soil in the PRO 14, was no flash in the plan and that it has imbued them with confidence to build on that historic triumph. And as their ace backline player William Small-Smith says, the need for a win for the Cheetahs at The Gnoll is no less acute - the Bloemfontein team want to regain the momentum that had their supporters buzzing a few weeks ago.
“We want to win this game big time and for several reasons,” said Small-Smith before his team’s departure for Wales.
“Those first three games that we played after we won the Currie Cup final there was great hype around us and we want to get that back. We want to be in the play-offs and in the semi-final, so this is a crucial game for us.”
It is indeed, for the Cheetahs are in a tough conference, fighting it out with Leinster, Ulster and Glasgow Warriors for one of three play-off places. The Cheetahs are currently third, but there isn’t much separating them from the team ahead of them, Ulster, and Glasgow Warriors, who are just behind them on the log.
The Cheetahs already thought before they headed to Wales that this match presented an opportunity for them given the Ospreys’ recent poor form, but that feeling would have magnified when they heard about the uncertainty surrounding the future of Ospreys coach Allen Clarke. It has been reported in Wales that Clarke has departed the club.
That though will not deflect from the Cheetahs’ focus, for Small-Smith says that the timing of this game makes it even more imperative for the Cheetahs to win.
“We go into a quite lengthy break now and we don’t want it to be spoiled by the memory of a defeat that hangs over you in your time off,” says Small-Smith.
“I well remember the feeling we had when we got into our bus in Cardiff on the morning after our last defeat three weeks ago. We were there starting out our journey at 8.30 in the morning, heading to London, where we had to wait for a flight to Dublin. Then it was from there to Turkey, where there was another wait in the airport.
“Then in Johannesburg we had a six hour wait before flying to Bloemfontein. The whole time the defeat hung over us, and then because it was the last game we played it has hung around in our memories over the past three weeks.
“We only play again on 4 January. We still have a long season ahead of us but we need the break because we played Currie Cup and then went straight into PRO14. We had 16 very busy weeks. This recent break was good for us. But we don’t want to go into the break feeling like we didn’t do our best in our last game."
The Kings players will feel similar. The expectation of victory will be less because unlike the Ospreys, Connacht have been in good recent form. Although they lost to Toulouse in the Champions Cup last weekend, they put up a creditable performance and before that they pulled off a mighty upset by beating Montpellier.
“Connacht are a proper team and they have shown us that with their start to the Champions Cup,” said Kings coach Robbi Kempson.
Like the Cheetahs, the Kings will need to improve their discipline as they gave away far too many penalties last time out. They will also have to fix the scrumming problems that were instrumental in allowing the Ospreys to come back strongly at them at the Liberty Stadium.
It is interesting to note that the Cheetahs won’t be playing in Swansea, but at The Gnoll, which is the home ground of Neath. That venue was the scene of one of the most tempestuous Springbok games of the post-isolation era when they toured there under Kitch Christie in 1994 so there is plenty of history to a small venue that is sure to have plenty of atmosphere.
WEEKEND FIXTURES FEATURING THE SA TEAMS
Connacht v Isuzu Southern Kings (Saturday, 19.15)
Ospreys v Toyota Cheetahs (Saturday, 21.35)