THE Cheetahs had several reasons to smile after their Super Rugby warm-up match against the Stormers in Bloemfontein on Saturday.
First, they rebounded after a loss to the Lions last week with a 27-26 win over the fancied Stormers, and second — probably more importantly — flank Juan Smith played 35 minutes for the first time in two years.
Smith, 31, ruptured an Achilles tendon in the first game of the 2011 season and was unsure whether he would ever play at the highest level again.
But on Saturday, the 69-Test veteran took to the field in what appeared to be hockey boots, with extra padding on his left heel, and immediately made an impact.
He was on the field less than a minute before making a telling tackle on centre Juan de Jongh.
The Stormers midfielder appeared to be through a half gap, but Smith covered ground and stuck out one mighty arm, pulling De Jongh down as a lion would an antelope. For the rest, Smith was heavily involved and did not shy away from contact, or appear to suffer any ill effects of the injury.
It is great news for Cheetahs and South African rugby.
The home team won the match thanks to a last-minute 55-metre penalty from replacement back Hansie Graaff.
Stormers coach Allister Coetzee was satisfied with certain aspects of the match, despite the negative result in his team’s first outing of the season.
"I wasn’t happy with the performance, but I achieved what I wanted (to) from the match," Coetzee said. "It’s good to win … but we mustn’t forget that these are just warm-up matches. The Super Rugby log is still played 0, won 0, lost 0 for everyone.
"This game was always about Eben Etzebeth getting 60 minutes, Nizaam Carr getting 60 minutes and Jaco Taute getting his first 60 minutes in a Stormers jersey. That happened and I’m happy about that.
"It’s all part of the conditioning phase, with the Super Rugby tournament still three weeks away, and although we weren’t as sharp as we could’ve been, we’re building towards February 22 (against the Bulls)."
De Jongh picked up a hamstring niggle, but it should not have any long-term repercussions for the Stormers and the player, while flank-lock Michael Rhodes injured himself in the pre match warm-up.
The Bulls beat the Lions 38-32 at the Orlando Stadium in Soweto where SA under-20 centre Jan Serfontein caught the eye with a superb performance. "We had a very good pre season, so the expectations on the players this weekend were big," Bulls coach Frans Ludeke said.
"It was encouraging to see them implement what we have been doing at training.… We could do better at retaining the ball in contact situations, because there were a few chances we wasted and we would like to be more accurate in our execution. But it was the first game of the year, so one expects that. The competition starts in three weeks and that is when we want to be at our best."
The Lions suffered a double whammy against the Bulls by losing their first game of the season and the services of an influential pair in loose forward Willie Brits and scrumhalf Michael Bondesio.
"It is a big blow, but we have to move on. We’ll just get another youngster in and back him," coach Johan Ackermann said.
It is also a setback when one considers the Lions would want to put their best foot forward at Ellis Park on Saturday against the Southern Kings, the team who replaced them after their relegation from Super Rugby.
But Ackermann insists the pressure is all on the Kings: "They are at the start of their campaign, so the pressure is on them. Everybody is going to make a big thing of this game, but for us it’s all about our vision and mission. That remains so regardless of who we play."
With Liam del Carme