Munster's Keith Earls in action for the British and Irish Lions against the Free State Cheetahs in 2009
MUNSTER’S conference rivals in next season’s Guinness PRO14 include competition newcomers, the Free State Cheetahs from South Africa.
Munster are tipped to host the former Super Rugby side in Limerick in early September in the second series of PRO14 fixtures.
The Free State Cheetahs have existed for more than a century competing in the Currie Cup but they joined an expanded Super Rugby competition in 2006 with that team having been created the previous season.
They are known as the Toyota Cheetahs, the franchise area encompasses the western half of the Free State province, the same as that of provincial Currie Cup side.
Although Free State had previously featured in the 1997 Super 12, the Cheetahs, finished tenth in their first season in Super Rugby in 2006.
Their best regular season finish was sixth in 2013 when they reached the play-offs for the only time in their history. They narrowly lost to eventual finalists the Brumbies, 15-13, in their qualifier in Canberra.
In 2017 the Cheetahs finished second in the Africa 1 conference, winning four out of 15 games as they found themselves in the tougher conference taking on all the New Zealand teams.
Francois Venter – The inside centre has won three caps for South Africa. Having started his career at the Bulls, he joined the Cheetahs in 2014.
At 26, Venter is relatively young to be a captain, but says that youth has its advantages.
Franco Smith – The Cheetahs have made a change to their coaching staff with Smith becoming the new director of rugby and Rory Duncan the head coach.
Smith is a former Springboks outside-half and centre who made 27 appearances for Newport after making his debut 1999.
Smith also coached Benetton Treviso for six seasons so will be familiar with the Guinness PRO14. He then returned to his native South Africa to take over the role as Cheetahs’ head coach in 2015.
Uzair Cassiem – The loss of Raymond Rhule will be a blow to the Cheetahs, but in the back row they are not short of talent, with current Springbok international Oupa Mohoje joined by the recently capped Cassiem.
A big physical back-rower, Cassiem can play both on the blindside flank, as well as at No.8. He won his sole cap to date against Wales last year, scoring a try at Principality Stadium, albeit in a losing cause.
Player to Watch
Ox Nche – The 21-year-old loosehead prop is a comfortable with the ball in his hands and has an impressive turn of pace to get the Cheetahs on the attack.
He showed off his remarkable speed for a front rower with a try when he ran in from halfway against the French Barbarians while playing for South Africa A in June.
The Cheetahs are based at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein. The stadium had its capacity increased to 48,000 for the 2010 Football World Cup.
It previously hosted three games during the 1995 World Cup including New Zealand’s record-breaking 145-17 victory over Japan in the pool stages.