Coach Hawies Fourie believes the Free State Cheetahs’ success in the Currie Cup forced rugby bosses to grant them an opportunity in the European Challenge Cup, reports DEVIN HERMANUS.
The Cheetahs, along with the Lions, celebrated their inclusion in Europe’s second-tier cup competition on Thursday.
The Stormers, Sharks and Vodacom Bulls, all of whom finished in the top eight of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, will play in the European Champions Cup.
It is seen as just reward for the Free Staters, who had been actively searching for a European competition to join but whose participation in a possible ‘B Division’ of the URC was dismissed.
The Bloemfontein outfit have only been competing on the domestic front in the Currie Cup, where Fourie’s men have booked a place in the semi-finals after an impressive nine wins from 10 matches.
“It’s great news for us. It’s been a long time coming,” the Cheetahs boss said. “We look forward to playing in the competition. Last year, we were slated to play in the Challenge Cup, but those plans were cancelled so there was a bit of disappointment.
“Yet, I’m pretty sure everyone is excited about playing some of the top teams in Europe.”
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“I believe our form to date has been crucial because it’s forced the powers that be to look at our credentials,” Fourie added.
“If we just won four or five matches in this Currie Cup campaign, everyone would’ve ranked us with some of our competitors locally. There would be no reason to invest in us [by finding an international competition to compete in].
“We continued to knock on the door for two, three years without any other tournament to compete in, losing a lot of players in the process but gaining many, too. We continued to perform at a competitive level. It’s been a long process to convince everyone that we’re ready for this challenge.”
The Cheetahs trail front-runners the Bulls by six points, but the Free Staters have a league game in hand and host the Pumas in Bloem on Friday. “The rest of the Currie Cup, personally, is now about being as best prepared as possible to bring the trophy back to Bloemfontein,” said Fourie.
“To do that, we need to play very well against the Pumas, then the Bulls and then the semi-final, too. If we don’t win those matches, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and undo all the good work we’ve done.
“We’re not worried about Europe for now, there’s a lot of water that needs to flow under the bridge. It’s Currie Cup or nothing for us currently.”