The opening of Parliament in Cape Town will be on 14 February and the 2013 SuperRugby season kicks off the next day in Australia. Sometimes it’s quite hard to tell which event is more important to South Africans, but either way they are parties nobody wants to miss.
The Lions are in the unfortunate position of having been relegated from this year’s SuperRugby competition and, like many of the snubbed before them, they’ve just gone away and organised their own party instead.
While being out of SuperRugby has led to an understandable exodus of players – Grant Hattingh, Jacobie Adriaanse, Paul Willemse, Ruan Botha, Josh Strauss, Etienne Oosthuizen, Pat Cilliers, Michael Rhodes, Bandise Maku, Butch James and Waylon Murray have all moved to fresh pastures – and Elton Jantjies, Franco van der Merwe, Jaco Taute and Lionel Mapoe have signed loan agreements to play for other franchises, the Golden Lions Rugby Union (GLRU) have organised a series of 16 matches for their remaining players.
Apart from games against Russia and Samoa, there will be an overseas tour to North America, five matches against top French opposition and fixtures against all five South African SuperRugby franchises for the Lions faithful to savour.
For the supporters, the good news is that 12 of these games, including a SuperRugby promotion/relegation clash on August 3, will be played at Ellis Park.
The series of fixtures, to be called the Lions Challenge, was the only choice open to the Lions if they wanted to continue functioning as a fully professional franchise and if they were to harbour any realistic hopes of maintaining a team capable of winning promotion back into SuperRugby.
“The easy route would have been to play the blame game and look for scapegoats. But we have decided to get on with the rugby and ensure we continue to serve our stakeholders. We have to bounce back from the debacle of last year’s SuperRugby and restore the Lions family. This way coach Johan Ackermann can mould together a very good side, a core of players, who can focus on taking on that last team in SuperRugby,” GLRU president Kevin de Klerk said on Thursday at the Lions Challenge launch.
“If we had just organised a series of friendlies then half our players would no longer be here for the promotion/relegation game. The players want to test themselves against the best,” acting CEO Ruben Moggee admitted. “We also had to ensure we keep something here for our supporters and sponsors, we need to retain their loyalty and there will be 12 matches at Ellis Park. Commercially it’s very important in helping us to retain our players and in putting out content that our sponsors are willing to buy into.”
The clashes with the Cheetahs, Bulls and Kings will be played during the build-up to the SuperRugby season, while the Stormers and Sharks will only visit Ellis Park during the June break.
The North American tour will consist of three games in Irvine (California), Vancouver and Chicago between 13 and 27 April, while French powerhouses Montpellier and Grenoble will line up against the Lions in July.
The Lions Challenge has been enthusiastically received by the players, broadcasters and sponsors.
“We’re not standing before the unknown anymore, I know something big is going to happen this year. I have a feeling about this team, I’m very proud of these guys.
“It felt like the end of the world when we were relegated from an amazing competition like SuperRugby, but now we have 16 games to look forward to. The players all had three weeks off this year, instead of the usual two but, for the first time in my eight years at the Lions, everyone came back and recorded personal bests in Monday’s fitness tests. That just shows the enthusiasm in the team,” Lions captain JC Janse van Rensburg said.
According to Moggee, about 20-25% of the year’s income is derived from the sale of suites at Ellis Park and there have been only two cancellations heading into the new year.
And SuperSport has confirmed live coverage of all the games at Ellis Park, but the broadcasting of the overseas fixtures will be dependent on the Lions being able to organise a feed from those venues.
But the quality of the opposition that turns out on the day is something the Lions cannot control.
While everybody would love to see full-strength Cheetahs and Bulls sides taking on a Lions outfit that has plenty to prove, every SuperRugby team has different plans in terms of preparation and coaches Naka Drotske and Frans Ludeke might prefer to give their second-stringers a run on that particular weekend.
But as starts to a new competition go, it’s not bad convincing your two neighbours to pitch up and even the Kings, the Lions’ arch-enemies, will be coming to Ellis Park, on February 9.
The Lions Challenge will provide some fresh faces and brands of rugby for Johannesburg rugby fans and at least the team have something to keep them occupied, and match-fit, while the others are enjoying the Sanzar party next door.
“We see this as a tournament that could have a life after this year for a different team. It’s interesting for the senior players to experience new things like touring the United States, playing new opposition and learning something new from them. We are offering a new brand of rugby, a new flavour to the rugby market,” Moggee said.
Fixtures: January 19 – v Russia (Ellis Park); January 26 – v Cheetahs (Ellis Park); February 2 – v Bulls (Orlando Stadium); February 9 – v Kings (Ellis Park); February 23 – v Namibia (Windhoek); March 16 – v Mont de Marsan (Ellis Park); April 13 – v US Invitational (Irvine); April 20 – v North American Barbarians (Vancouver); April 27 – v Chicago Lions (Chicago); May 11 – v Agen (Ellis Park); June 1 – v Samoa (Ellis Park); June 8 – v French Barbarians (Ellis Park); June 15 – v Stormers (Ellis Park); June 21 – v Sharks (Ellis Park); July 12 – v Montpellier (Ellis Park); July 20 – v Grenoble (Ellis Park); July 27 – SuperRugby promotion/relegation (away); August 3 – SuperRugby promotion/relegation (Ellis Park).