WHILE the Lions plan to approach Saturday’s game against the Cheetahs at Ellis Park as seriously as a Super Rugby match, Cheetahs assistant coach Hawies Fourie said on Wednesday their main objectives this weekend would be to identify player combinations and wear off some rust ahead of the southern hemisphere series.

The Cheetahs will line up against the Stormers in Bloemfontein next Saturday and the Bulls in Polokwane in two weeks in other warm-up matches to prepare themselves physically and mentally to achieve their goal of finishing in the top six in the series this season.

However, with the coaches looking to establish their top three choices of players in the next three weeks, Fourie agreed that the team that lines up against the Bulls in their final warm-up match will likely be the closest to their preferred Super Rugby team.

Despite this, he is looking forward to the clash against the Lions and said they were bracing themselves for a challenging encounter.

"This is our first friendly so we might be a bit rusty," Fourie said. "But all the warm-up matches are serious in terms of our preparation because there is a lot of competition for places in the squad between the Free State and Griquas players, and the games will assist us in identifying the pecking order of the players in each position. It will also be vital in allowing us to build momentum ahead of our season-opening match (against the Sharks on February 23) and to ensure that the players are match fit.

"That said, I was impressed with the intensity of the Lions’ performance against Russia and their ball handling at times. We know that they want to prove to the public that they deserve to be in Super Rugby, so we expect them to be even more determined to win when they meet us."

Unfortunately for the Cheetahs, they will be without the services of Springboks Coenie Oosthuizen (neck), flyhalf Johan Goosen (knee) and Heinrich Brussow (shoulder) for all three warm-up games, as they are still recovering from their injuries. But Fourie expects they will be fit to play in the first few weeks of the Super Rugby tournament.

Lock Martin Muller, however, has been ruled out for three months after tearing a groin muscle at training last week.

Commenting on their goals for the season, Fourie said a top-six log finish was within reach after the encouraging signs the team showed last year.

"We finished 10th on the log last season and as a team we believe we are capable of a lot more," Fourie said.

"We suffered seven defeats within seven points last year and there were four matches in which we were leading with five minutes to go and we let the result slip. If we had won those matches we would have secured a playoff place, so hopefully we can achieve it this year.

"It was also encouraging that we won matches in Australia and New Zealand last year, so that monkey is off our back."

Fourie said they wanted to add more variety to their structures and that they had put much focus on strength training and defence in the past few months.

He said they had found in the past that a large part of their conditioning involved "running and slick handling, but at the expense of strength training, so we adjusted that". Defence was also an important focus, "because we leaked a lot of tries last season".

Fourie said that a top-six log finish was within reach for the Cheetahs after the encouraging signs the team showed last year