Cheetahs out to crash Super Rugby finals party
South African outsiders, in the quarter-finals for the first time, give themselves a real chance of an upset over Brumbies as play-offs begin
Associated Press in Wellington
South Africa's Cheetahs will celebrate their best season in Super Rugby by gate-crashing a play-off party of former champions.
The Cheetahs - who have qualified for the first time - are the only one of the six remaining teams who have never won a Super Rugby title. Their quarter-final opponents, the ACT Brumbies, have two; the Canterbury Crusaders, who host the other quarter-final, have seven and their opponents, the Queensland Reds have one.
Two teams received a bye to the semi-final stage: the Chiefs will defend their only Super Rugby crown and the Pretoria-based Bulls will attempt to win their third title.
The Cheetahs best previous finish was seventh in 1997, after which they left the tournament for nine years. Since rejoining the competition in 2006, they have never finished higher than 10th.
But this season, under former Springboks hooker Naka Drotske, they have perfected one of the most expansive game plans in the competition, winning 10 of 16 games and showing an ability to win in Australia and New Zealand.
"We have a confident atmosphere in the team and we know if we play well, we can beat any team on the day," Drotske said.
"The last two tours - where we have won in Australia - have done our confidence the world of good. And we prefer to play the Brumbies. They are also new to the play-offs and their current group of players haven't played in this round of the competition yet, so it is a new thing to them as well."
The Cheetahs were underestimated by many opponents, and hope to exploit the same advantage on Sunday when the Brumbies might take them too lightly.
"We play better as a team when we are underdogs as there is absolutely no pressure on us," Drotske said.
The Brumbies have been the top team in Australia this season but the confidence of many players may have been dented by being part of an Australia team beaten by the British & Irish Lions, while ACT were also beaten last week in Perth.
Brumbies coach Jake White says veteran flanker George Smith will be among his starting line-up for the match, although Smith had a tough time in the third Lions test after suffering an early head knock.
The Crusaders have named All Blacks captain Richie McCaw on the bench and international lock Luke Romano in their starting line-up for tomorrow's match at Christchurch.
McCaw was expected to miss all of the Super Rugby season during an eight-month "sabbatical" which began after New Zealand's loss to England at Twickenham in December. He was due to return for the All Blacks' first Rugby Championships match against Australia on August 17 but has answered the Crusaders' call for late-season reinforcement.
The Crusaders are attempting to win an eighth Super Rugby title. This will be their 12th-successive appearance in the play-offs.
"You have got to treat it as an honour, not a burden," scrumhalf Andy Ellis said. "As soon as you think, 'We have been here so many times, we should win it' it just creates anxiety."
Queensland have named Wallabies James Horwill and Will Genia in their starting line-up, though they have lost centre Anthony Faingaa, winger Rod Davies and utility Mike Harris from a backline which has changed in four places after last week's narrow win over the New South Wales Waratahs.
"There is always going to be some damage at this time of the year and while it's disappointing to be without a few guys, we are getting the experience of James and Will back," coach Ewen McKenzie said.
"Their influence can't be understated and you need world-class players and strong leaders if you are going to win these games on the big stage."