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Cheetahs can't wait to sink teeth into Ulster challenge

 

By Jonathan Bradley

When Cheetahs coach Rory Duncan was last involved in a travelling party to the island of Ireland, there was slightly less riding on the outcome than will be the case for his side's historic season opener against Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday evening.

Back in 2004, the Durban native was in the middle of a two-year sojourn at Edinburgh-based club Watsonians, and on his way to Dublin for a pre-season tune-up against Clontarf at Castle Avenue.

And while the details of that particular contest have been lost to the sands of time, the result of this weekend's encounter - the first for his side since a summer deal to move north and join the Guinness PRO12 - will be etched into the record books for as long as the latest iteration of what was once the Celtic League is in existence.

Naturally, there were a few eyebrows raised when competition organisers set their sights on South Africa for a second expansion - the Italians having been added only in 2010 - but, while teething problems are expected, there can be no doubting the new boys' enthusiasm over a move that was brought about when the Cheetahs, as well as the Southern Kings, were victims of Super Rugby's down-sizing for 2018.

"The thing that makes me excited, and the players as well, is going in and being able to see how we compare to the Northern Hemisphere," said Duncan.

"It's something that we've wanted for a long time, it's something our supporters have wanted for a long time, and now they're going to get the opportunity to see it."

While there has been much chatter around the league about upcoming visits to Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth - Ulster take on the Southern Kings in the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on November 4 - the Cheetahs start with two road games, travelling south to Munster after Friday's clash, with Duncan under no illusions that the testing start will act as something of a crash course in PRO14 rugby.

"I normally watched it with a steak on the fire and a beer in my hand, so that's going to have to change going forward," he joked. "We did watch a fair bit, particularly the semi-finals and the final last year, but it wasn't something we were doing week in week out, obviously with the Super Rugby, the Currie Cup and following the other competitions.

"Ulster is an exciting fixture to start with and then obviously going to Limerick as well.

"They are two tough fixtures to start the competition with. We're going to face everyone so we may as well get them out of the way first."

The need for the PRO14 to up its television revenue, coupled with the displaced duo finding themselves without a league, has made for an unusually speedy marriage, and the Cheetahs have had to negotiate a number of hurdles ahead of Friday's opener.

Currently involved in Currie Cup action - the Cheetahs top the table of their domestic competition which will be restructured ahead of next year - the Bloemfontein outfit have had a hectic schedule over the last number of months.

With four players also in the Springbok squad currently boasting a two from two record in the Rugby Championship, the Cheetahs don't expect to have a full complement available until the New Year but, even in a season that began back in February, Duncan is not overly concerned about his charges burning out before the spring of 2018.

"When our team is at full strength, I'm confident that we can put together a team that is going to compete," he said.

"We will be starting the competition with a few niggles from the back end of Super Rugby and the start of the Currie Cup, but I'm confident.

"This is an opportunity to compare our strength with the Northern Hemisphere and this is what our supporters have been asking for.

"In terms of player management and player welfare, we've been giving the players time off during Super Rugby.

"We've also rotated during the Currie Cup with a different team.

"Really it's only a challenge up until November time and we have to take into account that we don't play in the European competitions, so we have those weekends built in.

"We don't play from December 2 to January 6, so that's an extended break too.

"When we come back then it's on for two weeks off for two weeks, that sort of thing. During that time the guys will be hungry for rugby."

For back-rower Niell Jordaan, worries about what will be a 15-month season pale in comparison to the concerns that were facing the squad earlier this year when it first emerged their Super Rugby place was under threat.

"At the beginning of the year, nobody would have suspected we'd be in the PRO14," he admitted.

"When we heard we were axed from Super Rugby there was a lot of doubt about the future. For two weeks or so, we didn't really know.

"Guys were going crazy phoning agents, saying they wanted to leave, but luckily Rory came in and said there was the PRO14 opportunity and that really settled everyone down to stick around and wait this thing out.

"I think the guys are all excited and, any challenges that there might be, we'll figure it out as we go."

While that concluding statement could equally apply to the whole concept, there is no doubt that plenty more neutrals will be tuning in on Friday to see the experiment's earliest returns.

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