The Cheetahs are at their most vulnerable this Super Rugby season but Michael Hooper isn’t talking up the Waratahs’ chances of banking maximum points from this weekend’s clash in Bloemfontein.
A four-try bonus-point win against the bottom-placed South African side in their penultimate-round clash will set the Waratahs up nicely to finish top of the Australian conference.
And the Cheetahs are ripe to be taken down.
Sitting 13th on the overall ladder, they have comfortably the worst defensive record in the competition – conceding a whopping 444 points in 2015 – and have leaked more points than normal over the past three weeks.
In emphatic losses to the Stormers, Lions and Highlanders, they’ve let in 16 tries – none of which changes Hooper’s mindset.
“Winning is first and foremost for us,” he told AAP ahead of Saturday’s clash (kick-off 11pm AEST) at Free State Stadium.
“The four-try bonus point is a good bonus.
“But it’s something that we’ll only be playing for where, if points or a try (come up) in the last five minutes of the game, we’re going for the try.
“The target is to really put out a complete performance. We believe the rest will take care of itself.”
The defending champion Waratahs sit equal on points with the Brumbies, who are overwhelming favourites to beat the bottom-of-the-table Western Force on Friday night.
Victories for the Tahs and Brumbies would set up a nervy final round against the Reds and Crusaders respectively in the tussle for playoff berths.
After last week’s loss to the Lions in Johannesburg, Hooper said there’d been a “fair bit of sting” during training.
The pressure of defending their title had not gotten to them, Hooper added.
“It seems like we’ve been chasing our tail with two early byes throughout the year, so it’s nothing new for us to be in the situation we’re in,” he added.
“Isolating the game on the weekend is what we’re going for at the moment.”
Discipline has also been a focus, with three yellow cards and as many suspensions in just two weeks.
Rob Horne, the last to be banned for a lifting tackle, has been replaced by Matt Carraro, while big flanker Jacques Potgieter returns to the starting side from a chest injury.
Hooper admitted the Waratahs had to “rein in” the number of penalties they were conceding while maintaining their “intimidating game”.
“It’s a balance we probably haven’t got right the last couple of weeks,” he said.
“But we want 15 guys on the field for a really good, strong 80 minutes this week.
“I don’t think guys should be scared, but they need to be smart players.”
The Cheetahs are well out of finals contention, but a fresh halves pairing in former Waratahs No.9 Sarel Pretorius and Niel Marais make them an unpredictable force at home.
“We’re excited about playing a different style of footy, and that’s Cheetahs rugby, but we want to put our play out there and really dominate the game,” Hooper added.