The Free Staters will be looking to consolidate their two-point lead over the Glasgow Warriors and to make up some ground on Ulster on the standings as they head into their clash against Zebre in Parma, while the Isuzu Southern Kings face the in-form Edinburgh, who have won six of their nine matches so far this season.
Both sides will be hoping to secure a victory before back-to-back derbies in South Africa, which will play an important role in determining their fate in the second half of the season.
Toyota Cheetahs coach Hawies Fourie expressed concerns that their travel schedule may be a setback for his charges, but he hoped that some strong forward play could serve a key role in starting the year on a positive note.
“Our journey to Parma wasn’t easy as we had to travel in two groups, which saw a number of us arriving a day earlier than others, and this made our preparation a bit challenging,” said Fourie. “That said we come off a three-week break, so we need to shake off the rust very quickly.
“It will be vital to execute our game plan well from the outset and avoid mistakes.
“We know that the hosts will be ready and sharp after two derby games against Treviso. Luckily the field is not as muddy as it was a few weeks ago when they played, although it is soft underfoot.”
Fourie emphasised the importance of a strong display up-front and solid defence, saying: “We need our forwards to dominate. Zebre have let through a number of maul tries in the competition and they conceded one again last week, so the mauls will be important.
“That said, they are also effective in terms of their mauls, so the team that wins that battle will give themselves a good chance.
“We will also be relying on good defence and discipline. We can’t fall into that trap again of conceding unnecessary penalties. We did ourselves no favours with the cards we got on our first tour, but we believe that is in the past, and we are now looking forward.”
In Edinburgh former Isuzu Southern Kings hooker and captain, Michael Willemse, is looking forward to crossing paths with his previous team-mates, who have been working tirelessly in the hot South African December sun in the hope of continuing their upward curve in the competition.
“I’m looking forward to the match,” said Willemse. “Those boys will be gunning for me, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. It should be quite a nice one.”
The player believed it will be a better Isuzu Southern Kings outfit than some may expect.
“They’ve really been working hard,” he said. “I’ve spoken to a couple of the boys and they have definitely put some decent systems in place.
“The bigger picture is certainly turning into a positive thing with their first away win against the Ospreys in November. I think they will be pretty happy about that and will want to take that into this game.
“Looking back at the way the Isuzu Southern Kings beat Edinburgh in Port Elizabeth last year, we will have to be on our A-game. We can’t take any games lightly and we will go into this one with a strong mind-set.”
Guinness PRO14 fixtures:
Zebre v Toyota Cheetahs
SA time: 17h00
Date: Saturday, 4 January
Venue: Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma
Referee: Sam Grove-White
Assistant Referees: Gianluca Gnecchi and Hollie Davidson
TMO: Paul Larter
Edinburgh v Isuzu Southern Kings
SA time: 21h40
Date: Saturday, 4 January
Venue: BT Murrayfield, Edinburgh
Referee: Joy Neville
Assistant Referees: Ben Blain and Johnny Erskine
TMO: Leo Colgan