Cape Town – The Cheetahs deserved their Currie Cup final triumph on Saturday considerably more than the eventual scoreline of 31-28 suggests.
While vanquished opponents the Lions confirmed that their squad “gees” runs deep – something that traditionally applies in Super Rugby as well – by launching a strong redemption drive in the closing 10 minutes which produced three tries in their favour, they were ultimately flattered by the outcome on paper.
Notable in two prior lead-up matches, against Western Province and the Sharks respectively, for their own remarkable comeback powers and ability to stay calm when potential crisis flickered, this time the Free Staters did things the other way around.
They all but clinched the contest in their favour in an urgent, slick first half which saw them open up a gaping 31-7 lead (four tries to one) at the break.
Indeed, had they not been thwarted early in the second period by a call-back for a TMO study of a forward pass earlier in the move, to thwart substitute Jasper Wiese’s dot-down, they would have widened the gap even more and possibly then run riot.
The last genuinely one-sided showpiece had been their own last triumph in the competition, when they scuttled the Blue Bulls 36-16 at the same venue in 2016 … and before the Wiese try was disallowed a massacre of sorts looked very much on.
Instead the sweaty, to-and-fro pace of the opening 40 minutes (and those 38 points in the process) receded into a relative stalemate – no further additions to the scoreboard – for fully half an hour until the Lions launched their deceptive clawback ahead of the hoisting of the trophy by the hosts.
Coinciding with the dying embers of the Franco Smith regime as head coach, the Cheetahs certainly timed their charge exquisitely this season, playing some of their most crowd-pleasing rugby in the last three weeks or so and the people of the province turning up in increasingly sterling numbers – culminating in a near-full house on Saturday.
The big task now is for the clearly fit, hungry and well-drilled outfit to take to the methods of new mastermind Hawies Fourie quickly – fortunately he has served time in the Free State culture before – and try to hit the ground running in their third Guinness PRO14 campaign, starting in three weeks with a home date against Glasgow Warriors.
They might just be able to do that, as they have three Bloemfontein matches (further ones against Irish heavyweights Ulster and Munster respectively) before they get on a long-haul flight for the first time, and should still have sufficient mental freshness and rosy morale in that opening period from their Currie Cup exploits.
Fourie will inherit a group containing a pleasing emphasis on emerging young talent, while vitally able this time to lean on veteran, strikingly in-form Springbok scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar for his vast knowledge of the Celtic rugby scene from his generous career spell with Ulster.
Someone like bristling 23-year-old hooker Joseph Dweba, a veritable piledriver in open player and prolific try-scorer into the bargain, shapes up as a potential new standout figure in PRO14 – simultaneously enhancing a personal charge for Bok honours after the World Cup – and there could be others in the camp.
While you have to be wary of trumpeting an increasingly watered-down Currie Cup too much, the Cheetahs do appear far better equipped for reaching the knockout phase again, something they managed in their opening PRO14 campaign in 2017/18.
Last time, though, they receded into a tame sixth out of seven in their conference and well off the quarter-final radar.
If they don’t stretch squad depth too much with a plague of injuries, they are highly likely to lift their results standards appreciably in 2019/20, particularly if the Bloemfontein public get meaningfully behind them for summer fixtures which will test the stamina of northern foes coming, contrastingly, out of icy winter …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing