The final standings will show Cheetahs as finishing second-bottom of the Conference A table, only above Zebre, but that doesn’t tell the whole story of their 2018/19 season.
Rory Duncan set the bar high for South African rugby in the Guinness PRO14 when he led the Cheetahs to the knockout stages of the competition in their inaugural campaign in 2017/18.
This year Franco Smith has not quite been able to hit those heights but there are plenty of positives to take into next season, including scoring more than double the points tally achieved by fellow South Africans Isuzu Southern Kings.
To put it simply – points scoring.
Winger Rabz Maxwane finished as the competition’s leading try-scorer, crossing the whitewash 14 time,s while scrum-half Shaun Venter added another 10 tries for the South Africans.
In total Cheetahs scored 80 tries, just three shy of eventual Conference A winners Glasgow Warriors proving they can outscore almost anyone in the Guinness PRO14.
It wasn’t just tries that were raining down for Smith’s men as fly-half Tian Schoeman contributed 59 penalties to finish the season well above anyone else in that category.
Cheetahs’ forwards were also more successful at the lineout than any other team across both conferences.
Areas to improve
For all their try-scoring brilliance Cheetahs’ leaky defence is what stopped them winning more than the eight games they did.
For every try they scored, they conceded another, finishing the season with an equal 80-80 split and a -65 points difference.
That might largely be down to the fact that Cheetahs completed the fewest tackles of any Guinness PRO14 side last season.
The bragging rights between South African Guinness PRO14 teams well and truly belong to Cheetahs – there is no question about that.
Before their final game of the season against rivals Kings, Cheetahs had won all nine of their previous encounters – and resoundingly made it a round ten on April 27.
Venter grabbed two tries and Abongile Nonkontwana, Walt Steenkamp, Joseph Dweba, Louis Fouche, Benhard Janse van Rensburg, Malcolm Jaer and Boan Venter also crossed for the hosts as they ran out 61-25 winners in Bloemfontein.
The Kings did close the gap to 33-25 after the break thanks to Harlon Klaasen’s double, plus a Bjorn Basson try, but the hosts never looked in trouble as they finished the season on a high.
Breakout Player of the Season
Junior Pokomela was the one who emerged to shine the brightest among the Cheetahs forwards last season.
The back-rower appeared 17 times over the course of the campaign, registering 289 metres carried and with more tackles and turnovers for his side than any of his teammates.
The former junior Springbok captain is still just 22 years of age and another season like the one he had last time around could do wonders for his prospects of getting back into the international fold.
Meanwhile no.10 Schoeman was an ever-present in the Cheetahs side and deserves an honourable mention for his goal kicking, six try-assists and 1,564 minutes of rugby – earning him the end-of-season Iron Man Award.
It would take a brave man to argue about the selection of Maxwane as the Cheetah’s player of the season.
The winger won the Guinness PRO14 Top Try Scorer Award for haul of 14, equalling the league record held by Tim Visser.
And South Africa Rugby president Mark Alexander had some kind words for Maxwane and Schoeman: “This a tough competition with top-class players, and for two players from our South African teams to be among the nine award winners is a fantastic achievement.
“Their class and consistency this season was admirable, and we are all very proud of them”
Congratulations @Sibahle_maxwane 💥
“I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. I enjoy my rugby and can’t wait for the new season to start” Rabz Maxwane pic.twitter.com/AA3vNikM4Y
— Toyota Cheetahs (@CheetahsRugby) 5 May 2019
Nobody as of yet – something that Franco Smith will need to address come the beginning of next season if his team is to make progress.
There’s not much by the way of outgoings in Bloemfontein either but Elandré Huggett, Ernst Stapelberg and Dennis Visser have all been confirmed as joining Free State XV next season.