Cheetahs chairman: There is hope, opportunities

Free State Cheetahs chairman Ryno Opperman has confirmed they are in negotiations to join a new international competition from October 2021.

Following confirmation of PRO Rugby’s expansion from 14 to 16 teams next year, the Cheetahs and Kings were unceremoniously dumped from the competition to make way for the Vodacom Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers.

The union this past weekend confirmed its interest in joining the new competition, believed to consist of teams from Spain, Germany and Russia.

According to Rapport, the Cheetahs are one of several franchises informed that their applications were accepted and that a final call will be made in February 2021, following negotiations between the competition’s organisers and potential sponsors as well as broadcasters.

The Intercontinental Shield is believed to kick off in October next year and the top teams could qualify to play in the European Challenge Cup.

In a statement to Cheetahs supporters on Wednesday, chairman Opperman publicly backed the team’s coaching staff and players, while also confirming they are negotiating ‘at the highest level about international and local rugby competitions’.

‘Free State Rugby is currently experiencing some of its most daunting challenges in its 125 years of existence,’ Opperman said. ‘The disruption in rugby caused by the Covid-19 pandemic was made much worse by SA Rugby ousting the Cheetahs from PRO16 – during the lockdown and amidst great uncertainty.

‘In addition, several of our top players, amongst whom Joseph Dweba, Ox Nche, Walt Steenkamp, Sintu Manjezi, Benhard Janse van Rensburg and Luan de Bruin, departed because the current rugby competitions coincided with the expiry of their contracts.

‘Ironically, Manjezi and Steenkamp were the Bulls’ lock pairing against the Cheetahs in their most recent game, while eleven of the Cheetahs who beat the Bulls two months ago, suffered injuries. Amongst them was our experienced captain, Ruan Pienaar, who will hopefully be available again before the end of the year. In addition to these eleven, contracted players such as Wilmar Arnoldi, Aranos Coetzee, Hencus van Wyk, Reniel Hugo and Oupa Mohoje, were out of action for most of the season due to injuries.

‘It is important, however, to retain perspective, hope, courage and to shape our own destiny in adverse times. There is hope and there are opportunities.

‘As a former Free State player, I know how tough the game is, even in “good times”. Every club and franchise will experience successes, “normal” years, slumps and disastrous times. Of course, we all love success, but that never lasts forever. In tough times, it is easy for critics and fair-weather friends to blame players, the coach and management. Loyal supporters, and, fortunately, they are the majority, stand by their team, knowing the wheel will turn. We value your support!

‘The Cheetahs are professional rugby players. We understand their pressures and general uncertainty. Professionals are, however, truly tested in tough times. They know they have to stay focused, perform despite uncertainty, and help their team to improve its position on the log.

‘Amidst the turmoil, our managing director, Mr Harold Verster, and coach, Hawies Fourie, have been subjected to undeserved criticism. Managing a rugby franchise, keeping it financially afloat, dealing with staff, players, sponsors, supporters and other stakeholders and managing a large stadium, can be a tough and thankless job. Coaches have to dig deep when they lose players through transfers and injuries. They have to stay motivated and lead their troops into battle.

‘The Board of Directors of the Cheetahs express their full confidence in its MD and coach and value their contribution under pressure. It is for this reason that the Board has specifically asked Mr Verster to stay on after his planned retirement. This was not his choice or request. We are grateful to him for staying on. In uncertain times like these, experience and stability are needed. Free State is a strong rugby entity that has overcome many challenges. I value the support and leadership of the president of Free State Rugby Union, Mr Jerry Segwaba. He, I, the management and players will stay focused to do our level best for the game and team we all love. We still have the greatly appreciated support of our naming sponsor, Toyota.

‘Our leadership team is negotiating right now at the highest level about international and local rugby competitions, financial matters, revenue and broadcast rights.  You have heard this before, but these negotiations involve many parties, here and overseas. They are complex, confidential and sometimes sensitive until a firm deal is concluded. We would dearly love to keep you informed, but it is unfortunately not possible as it may jeopardise potentially beneficial contracts.

‘You have probably seen that we have applied to play in an international competition starting in October 2021 in Europe with the potential to grow. There is also the Currie Cup as well as another local competition, Test matches and the possibility that the British & Irish Lions will train in Bloemfontein for the Test series against the Springboks.

‘The Cheetahs are working closely with Saru’s Director of Rugby, Rassie Erasmus, who has strong Free State roots.  He is advising us on positive, interesting and creative options for the future.’

Photo: Frikkie Kapp/Gallo Images