Willie gets 'freedom of Free State'
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotské has given his Springbok fullback Willie le Roux free rein in this year's Super Rugby competition.
The Cheetahs, based in the Free State capital Bloemfontein, play host to the Lions in the first game of the new season on Saturday – which also marks the Lions' return to Super Rugby.
Drotské said he will not only look to his whole side to deliver the goods in the Free State Stadium, but will also bank on Le Roux conjuring up a magical performance.
Playing for the Springboks Le Roux showed that his sometimes unconventional approach to the game can turn any match on its head and Drotské has chosen not to restrict such a special player to within the traditional team structures.
"Willie is one of about five percent of those players in the world that you cannot bind within your conventional structures. He has shown in the past that his decision-making is probably the best of any player in South Africa," Drotské said.
"I believe it will be fatal if we hamper his skills by forcing him to adhere to our structures. He always gets the benefit of the doubt and he always makes the right decisions. He has the freedom to do whatever he wants on the playing field."
A tough opening match between the two sides is expected as both the Cheetahs and Lions have much to prove.
The hosts will want to show that their good performance in last year's competition was no fluke, while the Lions will want a good start after missing out in 2013.
"There is definitely pressure on us, it won't help to deny that. But we are confident we can reach the play-offs this year, therefore, it isn't negative pressure," the coach said.
"Our supporters and sponsors now know that we can compete with the best and it is important that we don't disappoint them."
One area where the Cheetahs will be tested is in midfield, where a new centre combination of Johann Sadie and Francois Venter will want to prove their dominance early on.
Former Bulls centre Venter comes into the line-up in the absence of Robert Ebersohn who now plays for French club Montpelier.
"Our new centre combination of Johann Sadie and Francois Venter is gelling very well. It is always difficult to replace a player like Robert Ebersohn with regards to intensity and defence.
"Francois has shown he is good on the attack but also that he is no weak defender. He will be one of the surprises of the season."
While the Lions will have to make due without injured Bok flyhalf Elton Jantjies, the Cheetahs welcome back stalwart Johan Goosen after a lengthy injury. Cheetahs back line coach Hawies Fourie is confident the flyhalf is back to his very best.
"He's had a 120 minutes of rugby since recovering from his injury. He is at a better place now than he was a year ago," Fourie said.
"He is kicking very well and has been slotting them over from his own ten metre line during the week. We believe he is 100 percent fit and raring to go."
The Lions will arrive in Bloemfontein with a team consisting of more youngster than experienced veterans. Seasoned stalwarts like lock Franco van der Merwe, replacement hooker Willie Wepener and flanker Derick Minnie have played more Super Rugby games between them than the rest of the Lions side combined.