Cheetahs exodus XV
OPINION: The Cheetahs, much like the Southern Kings, can’t be blamed for feeling like a proverbial stepchild in South African rugby.
After featuring as the Free State in the 1997 Super 12 tournament, they were paired with Transvaal in the now-defunct Cats – a miserable marriage that never had a chance of succeeding.
After a messy divorce, the cartel – consisting of the Golden Lions, Leopards, Pumas, Free State, Griffons and Griquas – broke up into two franchises.
The Cheetahs (Bloemfontein) and Lions (Johannesburg) competed in the expanded Super 14 competition from 2006.
For the next decade, they struggled to make an impact and only once, 2013, reached the play-offs.
Following SANZAAR’s decision to reduce the number of teams from 18 to 15 in 2018, the Cheetahs joined the Kings in the big trek north – to the newly expanded Pro14.
They reached the play-offs in their first season in Europe, but the constant player drain once again reduced them to also-rans.
Apart from the poaching of their resources by South African franchises, they now also had to compete with the cash-flush clubs in Europe for players.
Given their limited budget, they were fighting a losing battle.
We will focus on the last decade (2010 to 2019) and select a team of famous Cheetahs that headed out the exit door!
(Continue reading below … )
15 – Willie le Roux
The World Cup winner had two seasons at the Boland Cavaliers, before he moved to Griquas – where the Cheetahs made full use of his talent. In fact, they valued him so much the Bloemfontein-based franchise signed him fulltime in 2014. He spent a season with the Sharks in 2016, before heading abroad to Premiership outfit Wasps – where his form saw him being recalled by Rassie Erasmus, after missing the 2017 season. Back-up: Riaan Viljoen and Hannie Daniller.
14 – Cornal Hendricks
Not so much that he left the Cheetahs, but a heart condition forced him into a four-year hiatus just as he was beginning to cement his place on the right wing in the Springbok team. Signed for the Stormers, but never actually played a game for them. He played 11 of his 12 Tests in 2014 and started on the right wing for the Boks against New Zealand in July 2015, before forced to take a break. After several false dawns, he eventually made his comeback for the Bulls in 2019. Back-up: Danwel Demas and Jongi Nokwe.
13 – Robert Ebersohn
Truly unlucky not to have been capped by the Springboks in the 15-a-side game, but a regular with the BlitzBoks between 2008 and 2011. Made more than 130 appearances for the Cheetahs, before the SA Schools and Baby Bok moved to France at the end of 2013. Back-up: Andries Strauss and Johann Sadie.
12 – Francois Venter
Played three of his seven Springbok Tests and outside centre, but was always more at home at inside centre. Followed the well-trodden path to the English Premiership when he signed for Worcester Warriors in 2018. Back-up: Morgan Newman and Howard Mnisi.
11 – Raymond Rhule
Played all seven his Tests on the right wing, but we felt he deserved a starting spot and thus moved him to the other side. Never really fulfilled the enormous potential he showed as a junior, but was invaluable to the Cheetahs before he moved to the Stormers in 2018 and then on to France later that year. Back-up: Ryno Benjamin and Fabian Juries.
10 – Johan Goosen
Despite the tumultuous and sporadic nature of his career, he is still regarded as one of the most talented flyhalves in South Africa. Probably would have played a lot more than just 13 Tests if it was not for his two-year ‘retirement’ after a fall-out with Racing 92 boss Jacky Lorenzetti and several injuries. Back-up: Meyer Bosman and Louis Strydom.
9 – Piet van Zyl
Played the last of his three Tests against Wales in November 2016. Born in Pretoria and schooled at Grey College, Bloemfontein, he played 60-odd games for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby before moving to the Bulls. Joined London Irish in 2018 and Stade Français later that same year. Back-up: Sarel Pretorius and Tewis de Bruyn.
8 – Ashley Johnson
He may be playing mostly at hooker for Wasps these days, but it was at No.8 where he made his Springbok debut against Australia in Sydney in 2011. His other two Tests were off the bench as a loose forward. In his five years at the Cheetahs (2007–2012) he also played loose forward and only moved to the front row at the Premiership club, Wasps. Back-up: Philip van der Walt and Davon Raubenheimer.
7 – Juan Smith (captain)
His 70 Test appearances included two World Cup – 2003 and 2007. In the latter he played key part in the Springboks’ victorious run in France, which saw them claim the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time. In February 2011, in a Super Rugby match against the Bulls in Bloemfontein, Smith tore his Achilles tendon. After two years on the sidelines and four surgeries he announced his retirement. However, he miraculously recovered and joined French giants Toulon in 2013 – playing 90-odd games for them, including a couple of European Cup titles and a French Top 14 win. He also made a brief return to the Springboks in 2014. Back-up: Pieter Labuschagné and Uzair Cassiem.
6 – Heinrich Brüssow
He may have played only 23 Tests, but is still rated as one of the best truly openside flanks in South Africa – where the ‘bigger is better’ mantra still persists. His true value was displayed in the series win over the British and Irish Lions in 2009. He eventually played 140-odd games for the Cheetahs (Currie Cup and Super Rugby) before moving to Japan and later Northampton Saints in the English Premiership. Back-up: Johannes Prinsloo and Willie Britz.
5 – Lodewyk de Jager
Fast approaching the 50-Test mark, he was a key member of the Springbok team that won the World Cup in Japan last year. From humble beginning with the Leopards and NWU Pukke teams, he started to make his mark after moving to the Cheetahs in 2013. He played 50-off games in Bloemfontein, before moving to the Bulls in 2017 and to Sale Sharks in the Premiership after the World Cup last year. Back-up: Barend Pieterse and Izak van der Westhuizen.
4 – Reniel Hugo
The one area where the Cheetahs had adequate cover, but never really challenged other teams with outstanding players. After stints with Western Province and the Blue Bulls – where he had limited opportunities – he arrived in Bloemfontein in 2015 and made 50-odd appearance before moving on to Japan. Back-up: Andries Ferreira and Martin Muller.
3 – Willem Nel
Brief spells with Western Province and Boland saw him arrive in Bloemfontein in 2009. Over the next four years he made more than 100 appearances for the Cheetahs in the Currie Cup and Super Rugby. Despite some impressive form he found his way blocked to the national team and in late 2012 moved to Edinburgh – resulting in a call-up top the Scotland national team three years later. He has 37 caps for his adopted country. Back-up: Trevor Nyakane and Lourens Adriaanse.
2 – Adriaan Strauss
His Test career will, unfortunately, be remembered for his captaincy stint in 2016 – eight defeats in 12 internationals in 2016. However, he is a far better player than the manner in which it all finished. There were some great moments in his 66 Tests and 150 games (Currie Cup and Super Rugby) for the Cheetahs. Back-up: Torsten van Jaarsveld and Ryno Joseph Barnes.
1- Coenie Oosthuizen
He may be a tighthead now, but Oosthuizen made the first of his 30 Test appearances as loosehead – coming off the bench against England in Durban in June 2012. A serious neck injury in 2015 forced him out of the game for a lengthy period – and the World Cup. However, his move to the tighthead position earned him more regular game time at Test level. A serious knee injury in Test against Ireland in Dublin in November 2017 saw him sidelined for 10 months. He lost the race against time to force his way back into the Bok squad in time for the World Cup. Back-up: Wian du Preez and Retshegofaditswe Nché.