It is not often that I get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I read something about administration in South African rugby, but the guts and determination of the Golden Lions Rugby Union who is arguably facing their biggest crisis in their 100+ year history is something that deserves more than just an honourable mention.
I have personally posted blogs on this union in the last 5 years where I was more than just a tad critical about the union and specifically their administrators, but not without justification. Even the most loyal Lions supporter will agree with me that the levels of absurdity this union stooped to was unforgivable given its proud 122-year history.
The chaos in their boardrooms was only exceeded by the chaos and embarrassment of their on-field performances. The union not only lost the respect of their fans but also truck-loads of money from sponsors which left them, according to some, on the verge of bankruptcy.
Late last year this crisis reached breaking point with the news that the once proud union who was the first South African team to win a Super Rugby tournament, was told that they are going to be replaced by the Kings. Now unlike the late 90’s where we also had teams promoted and relegated, rugby as a professional sport was still in its infancy. Today, teams survive almost exclusively on the principle and the size of the slice of the Super Rugby pie they get and if you are not one of the chosen 5 to play in the competition, you are doomed financially.
The Lions could have easily crawled into a corner and sulk, blaming every man and his dog for this unfair decision (which in many ways it was) and accepted their fate as a doomed entity relegated to a second tier union or even worse, closing their doors permanently.
Instead, De Klerk and his staff went balls to the wall. They refused to give up on a proud union (and themselves) and jumped into action to save what still could be saved. Firstly they tried to look after their most valuable assets, their players, and although a handful has been lost to the union they managed to secure loan deals for others and even managed to sign on new recruits!
Secondly they sat down and worked out a plan of action for the union for the months February to August 2013 when the rest of the rugby nation will be fixated on the Super Rugby competition. They were never going to get themselves involved in something on the same level as Super Rugby in the time they had, but hell they came pretty close.
The Lions have managed to secure matches against countries like Samoa, Russia and Namibia – they will also play against French clubs like Agen and Montpellier, a couple of games against Barbarian sides from France and an American All-Stars team, games against all 5 South African Super Rugby sides which makes up a total of 18 games from January 19th to August 3rd. It is quite simply, a remarkable achievement by the administrators to have secured this.
With most of their top class players on loan to other Super Rugby franchises, the Lions will have quite a youthful squad for what they named, The Lions Challenge. It is a squad of players who will gain invaluable experience against international players, experience life on the road and in foreign lands, all of this with zero pressure or little focus on the actual results.
Compare that to what the extended squad players of Super Rugby franchises will be stuck with in a Vodacom Cup competition, and one might be forgiven to think that it’s actually quite genius from the Lions administration to have come up with this.
Of course their aim in the end is to get back into Super Rugby, after all, it is where the money is. And apart from probably taking the best route to prepare for the important promotion/relegation match for what will be a fresh and hungry squad of Lions players against a battered, bottom of the log Super Rugby franchise, the Lions may just have shown other unions and alternative to a boring competition like the Vodacom Cup to build squad depth.
Ironically, it seems that the worst possible scenario or biggest crisis the union faced in the last 20 years might have been the catalyst to finally shake the administration out of their comfort zone forcing them to take action. Something that might just stir the sleeping giant to wake from its decade long hibernation…