'SA Rugby inflicted the most harm on the Cheetahs'
SPOTLIGHT: Free State Cheetahs Managing Director Harold Verster does not want the rugby community to forget how SA Rugby has treated his team in 2020.
Last year the Cheetahs were dumped from PRO Rugby. In December it was then revealed that the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and the Stormers will be competing in a new 16-team ‘Rainbow Cup’ competition with the current Pro14 teams, which kicks off in April.
In a letter on the Cheetahs’ website, Verster looked back on what was a difficult and disappointing year for the team.
He wrote: “As if history really wanted to test the Cheetahs’ backbone, it is ironic that Free State’s 125th year of existence proved to be one of its very toughest. The world and rugby were turned upside down. Other unions also had some challenges, but we still feel that the decision-makers and leaders at SA Rugby inflicted the most harm on the Cheetahs with its PRO16 decision.”
To rub salt in the wounds, the Cheetahs have not qualified for the Currie Cup play-offs after their narrow 29-31 defeat to Western Province last weekend.
“Fate added to our woes: to lead Western Province and then lose with a penalty in injury time, is bitter medicine,” Verster added.
“It offers only some consolation, but the Cheetahs could not have lost with greater honour. It says so much for the bravery and determination of the Free Staters. Frans Steyn was not only a symbol of Cheetah resilience, but his emotional interview after the match showed how motivated the team was and how disappointed they were about losing.
“In 2020 we were excluded from the PRO16 series, despite many influential rugby heroes voicing their support for the Cheetahs. This resulted in losing some of our top players as well as our forward coach, Corniel van Zyl, who accepted a position abroad. Team injuries took their toll. The match against the Lions was cancelled when the Cheetahs were on top form after beating the Bulls. That was the match in which the Toyota Cheetahs lost their experienced captain, Ruan Pienaar, through an injury that kept him out of the entire Currie Cup season. He should be match fit soon.
“In the midst of these setbacks, the coaching and player team dug in and delivered match performances we can all be proud of. We saw a new focus, motivation and the well-known Cheetah style of rugby that is so popular amongst South African and international rugby fans.”
Verster also came to the defence of head coach Hawies Fourie.
“The popularity of a rugby coach is often influenced or determined by only one match or even a part of a match. Rugby fans easily question the coach’s ability, expertise and track record. Some motivate their displeasure with statistics. This is wrong and unfair. A coach has to play the hand he is dealt. The best strategy, game plan and preparation can go wrong on the day or your opponent could be lucky and/or dominate a particular aspect of the game.
“Our coach, Hawies Fourie, is on the receiving end of constructive, but also negative criticism. He deserves a medal for the way in which he has held the team together and made them believe in themselves. Thank you very much, Hawies! The Western Province’s World Cup forwards pack prevailed, although the Cheetahs, with far less ball possession, looked more dangerous and purposeful.”
However, Verster did give Cheetahs fans some hope with the possibility of an “Inter-Continental competition in Europe”.
“There is no point in contemplating what might have been. We are looking ahead. The Griquas match is waiting and it is important that the team ends the Currie Cup on a high note and then prepare for the next challenge: in February when the Cheetahs take on the other four major franchises in a single round competition.
“There are other exciting prospects including the possibility of playing in the Inter-Continental competition in Europe, as well as the possibility of another exciting tournament.
“We should pause briefly to reflect on 2020. Then we have to remind ourselves: it is 2021, a new year with new goals, energy, circumstances and opportunities. Our challenge is to level our own playing field. May 2021 provide the attractive and exciting rugby that the Cheetahs have become known and loved for the past 125 years.”