On Tuesday, the Free State Cheetahs, who are widely recognised as everybody’s second favourite rugby team in South Africa, will do what many never thought would happen – fight for their status as a Currie Cup Premier Division side in a promotion-relegation game against the SWD Eagles.
Thanks to a playing style that appeals to everyone and a perpetual presence in the semifinals, the Cheetahs have come to signify the Currie Cup for many.
They may not have dominated the tournament like Western Province and the Blue Bulls, but they have contributed as much by way of entertainment and talent export (where would SA Rugby be without Grey College’s conveyor belt, and where would the Sharks be without the Cheetahs’ recruits?).
But then the unprecedented happened this season, the Cheetahs – their playing resources stretched to the limit by campaigning in the Pro 14 as well – failed to win even one of their Currie Cup Premier Division games and thus landed themselves in this situation.
The irony is that the Cheetahs were rumoured to have been one of the provincial unions that championed the abbreviated current format of the Currie Cup – a single-round competition relegated to six regular season games and month-long byes – so that they could get it over with and concentrate on the bigger fish of Pro 14 rugby.
But if their results in both competitions have shown anything, it is that they simply don’t have the playing resources to do themselves justice in either. It’s an admission they inadvertently made by half committing to the two tournaments, which is why their results have fallen into the crack between the two competitions.
A great sign that they don’t have the talent to compete are some of the players who have cropped up in their Currie Cup team. With respect to them, I have to be honest, I didn’t know that players like Lloyd Greeff and Louis Fouché were still playing, or that Tian Schoeman was already back in South Africa.
The fact that the Cheetahs are relying on journeymen who have been tried and not worked out elsewhere, and on talented but callow juniors in their Currie Cup squad, suggests they no longer have hopes of winning it.
Which begs the question, why are they still campaigning in it?
The Pro 14 was supposed to be an elegant way out for the Cheetahs, who, along with the Southern Kings, were voted out of Super Rugby last year. After a promising first year in which they made the quarterfinals, they have regressed this year, seemingly due to the crippling strain of being under-resourced and juggling two competitions.
Another pressure of sorts is that they and the Kings are the guinea pigs in terms of whether the move up north can work for South African rugby. But with the results taking a couple of steps backwards, this could prove to be an expensive experiment, and the dreams of the European-based sponsors they had going into the Pro 14 may be stillborn.
What the Cheetahs need to ask themselves is whether they are content with surviving as a rugby union or if they’d like to take a shot at thriving.
They are not exactly pulling in the crowds at the Free State Stadium, which is as much a consequence of the game’s prevailing financial strife as it is due to results and good old-fashioned confusion among the Bloemfontein fans about which competition they should commit to.
It’s probably not what rugby fans want to hear about their second favourite rugby team, but it may improve their performance lot for them to commit to playing in one of the two competitions as the heavy workload has clearly spread them thin.
When Tuesday comes, the Cheetahs will probably load the dice by playing a side teeming with their Pro 14 regulars so they can preserve their Premier Division status. They’ll also win so they can carry on not winning in either the Currie Cup or the Pro 14.
Follow me on Twitter @Simxabanisa