The West

Byes critical feature of finals countdown
Cheetah Adriaan Strauss prepares to crash through Bull Jan Serfontein while Boom Prinsloo runs in support. Pic: Getty Images

As improbable as it may seem, point-less bye rounds have become crucial in Western Force's bid for a first Super Rugby finals appearance.

They could have slipped out of a top-six qualifying spot because of their weekend off, but favourable results have left them fifth, just three points behind the second and third-placed Brumbies and Chiefs and two behind the Waratahs.

Having no more byes as the competition moves past the halfway mark is particularly important for the Force because of the close nature of this year's tournament.

The Waratahs and Chiefs have byes in the next two weeks, with the Brumbies' to come in the penultimate week.

One point behind the Force are the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders, with the Hurricanes' bye coming in the last week of the season.

Even the Blues and Bulls, two and three points behind the Force respectively, have byes to come.

The challenge for the Force now is simple - they just have to keep on winning. No finals challenger can afford a stumble even with seven rounds remaining.

The Force's winning ways must continue on Saturday night against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein before they head to Cape Town to tackle the Stormers. The two South African sides may be propping up the table, but coach Michael Foley knows it would be foolish to judge them by their lowly positions.

The Bulls beat the Cheetahs 26-21 on Saturday.

"Underestimate them at your own peril," Foley said.

"Both teams have had trips to Australia and New Zealand that were not their best, both have had bumps but they are finding form.

"Recent games, and the game (a week ago) between the two sides shows they are playing better rugby and South African sides always play better at home. They will be physical games and we will need to keep up our intensity.

"We can expect to face a fair bit of mauling and strategic kicking, but the Cheetahs can play with a lot of width and have a few tricks up their sleeve. The Stormers are known for their defence."

The Force will want to improve their South African touring record of only seven wins in 19 games, with one draw.

They have played the Cheetahs and Stormers three times each in South Africa - beating the Cheetahs twice and the Stormers just once.

There have been a few notable results, including the 34-34 draw with the then Cats in Johannesburg followed by their first win, a 16-14 victory over the Cheetahs, both on their first tour of South Africa in 2006.

They produced a famous come from behind 30-27 win over the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in 2007, overcoming some appalling referee decisions that reduced them to 14 players and that gave the Bulls plenty of chances to secure victory with penalties.

Instead, an over-confident captain Victor Matfield ignored the opportunities, went for line-outs and the traditional maul, only to be repulsed time and again.

There was also 16-15 win over the Cheetahs the following year when a young Nick Cummins burst onto the scene.

He ignored the safety-first option of touching down in-goal with 60 seconds on the clock, took off on a long run that caught the opposition unaware and four minutes after the siren Matt Giteau kicked the winning penalty.

The West Australian

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