/ 6 July 2011

Lions’ pride turning into a joke

<b>Nickolaus Bauer</b> looks back to 1993, and when it was a good time to be a Lions fan.

It was 1993 and at nine, it was my first rugby game. Back then you could run on to the field and catch a glimpse of the players as they marched off — but I had other things in mind as I jumped the barrier.

I hit the grass with a thud and went for it, digging the turf out with my hands, savouring the feeling of earth under my fingernails. I had a piece of the hallowed field, the ground my heroes ran on.

I still have that slice of Ellis Park lawn in a dusty bottle at home, but its lustre has certainly gone — much like the team’s fortunes.

It was a good year for the Transvaal Lions (as the Gauteng Lions Rugby Union was then known). They won everything — the Currie Cup, the Lion Cup and the Super 10.

The team was flooded with class players, from their mighty leader Francois Pienaar, fiery fullback Theo van Rensburg, ingenious hooker Uli Schmidt, and the fearless lock pairing in Hannes Strydom and Kobus Wiese. There was also the brilliance of utility back Gavin Johnson and the athletic fly-half Hennie Le Roux.

It was a good time to be a Lions fan — the team was the cream of the crop that sent opposition away bruised and beaten.

There was a running joke back then that you’d go to a Springbok game to watch the Lions play, with the majority of the national side being made up by the union’s players.

Eighteen years later and there is barely a memory of the once formidable outfit.

Nowadays, the Lions are the butt of most opposing fans’ jokes — for example: “What’s a synonym for sadomasochist? A Lions fan”

Nostalgia aside, the only thing left of that time is the question bearing down on the minds of Lions’ fans and sympathisers: what went wrong?

Besides the lonely 1999 triumph in lifting the Currie Cup, it’s been lean times ever since. Obviously the players from that era are gone, but how can that winning mentality be so far removed from the current set up?

Most couch commentators will tell you the Lions have been run into the ground after the departure of former president Louis Luyt, who revived the bankrupt union in the early 1980s.

The moves he made back then dragged the Lions back from obscurity and delivered the amazing year that was 1993.

Raking out the rubbish
Luyt wasn’t a polite or popular man, but he rid the union of their debt by raking out the rubbish and undertaking the masterstroke of building business suites in the once empty stands.

He also attracted the country’s best players to the union, eventually leading to the triumphant team of 1993. It was a simple equation — make money, buy players — and put bums on seats.

Before Luyt’s ousting in the late 90s — under a cloud of allegations of mismanagement and racism — he had amassed enough wealth to make them the richest union in the world.

Perhaps he wasn’t all in it for the team though. One of the most famous rumours of his tenure — which he strenuously denies — was that only his liquor outlets could supply the stadium with booze — so while he gave, he might well have also received.

Since Luyt left, the Lions have limped from catastrophe to calamity, working through coaches and union presidents while bleeding outstanding players to other teams.

What do players like Bryan Habana, Jacque Fourie, Joe van Niekerk, Willem Alberts and Louis Ludik all have in common? Besides being exceptional players, they all played for the Lions once upon a time but were then lost to other unions which offered them better prospects.

Whether it’s down to poor management of the players themselves or downright stupidity by the Lions management, is open to debate.

The final straw
There have been half chances for the union to recover with countless coaches being hailed as the new saviours. Memories of former Bok coach Jake White coming in and accessing the team for a seven figure fee spring to mind. Of course the appointment of current Springbok assistant coach Dick Muir being hailed as the proverbial Moses to lead the team to the Promised Land is another.

All have come, all have failed — dismally.

The latest twist in this saga has to be the final straw: tycoons Robert Gumede and Ivor Ichikowitz pulling the plug on their multimillion-rand equity deal after it seemed as though it began to bear fruit leaves me raw.

For the first time in almost two decades the Lions were heading in the right direction — people were talking about them as serious opposition and not punching bags.

Neither Gumede and Ichikowitz, nor current Lions president Kevin De Klerk, seem prepared to accept responsibility for the split, but are ready to hurl insults at one another.

The investment duo alleges the Lions are nothing but old school money hungry rugby dinosaurs who fear the transformation they sought to bring.

De Klerk and his posse assert that there’s more to rugby than simply entertaining people in hospitality tents.

Like the child in the middle during a rough divorce, it’s the fans and — more importantly — the players who suffer.

One wonders what will become of great talents like Elton Jantjies or Josh Strauss in all of this mess. Perhaps they’ll be sold to the highest bidder like Habana and co?

So while the fans wait for our proverbial mom and dad to finish their spat and see if mom can find another partner, I suppose it’s back to our lonely bedroom called Ellis Park with empty tummies hungry for trophies — all the while humming the tune to Somewhere over the Rainbow.

A previous version of this column did not make clear that it was merely a rumour that Louis Luyt was enriched by supplying the stadiums with alcohol. This has been rectified.