- The Lions’ Currie Cup meeting with the Cheetahs has been cancelled at late notice after the Free Staters decided travelling to Johannesburg is unsafe.
- Despite Ellis Park being near to various #UnrestSA hotspots, the Lions players and staff came to work this week without any interruptions, with its safety partners stating it was safe to travel to the stadium.
- The Lions were willing to travel to Bloemfontein to fulfil the fixture, but the Free Staters weren’t comfortable with such an arrangement.
Despite assurances of safety and even a willingness to compromise, the Lions and Cheetahs’ Currie Cup clash on Saturday has been cancelled.
It means there will be no action in the much-maligned domestic tournament this weekend after the Pumas’ trip per bus to Durban to face the Sharks was scrapped due to the ongoing unrest in KwaZulu-Natal, while the Griquas-Bulls encounter was canned to allow for Jake White’s men to take on SA ‘A’ in Cape Town.
An official SA Rugby media release on Wednesday stated that the fixture at Ellis Park was still slated to be fulfilled, but the Lions were informed at approximately 13:30 on Thursday that the men from Bloemfontein had objected to travelling to Johannesburg.
Rudolf Straeuli, the Lions’ chief executive, confirmed the news at what was supposed to be the Lions’ team announcement, adding that safety concerns was the primary reason for the Cheetahs pulling out.
Ellis Park, situated in Doornfontein, is located near the Johannesburg CBD and is in close proximity to areas such as Bertrams, Jeppestown and Hillbrow, previous hotspots for #UnrestSA riots.
“We heard at a very late stage that the game is being cancelled and we apologise for the inconvenience,” said Straeuli.
“The Cheetahs informed us that they had instituted a temporary non-travelling policy for the team because they feel it’s unsafe.
“It’s a decision that wasn’t taken lightly because we really want to fulfil our obligations.”
Ironically, the Lions had a full week of training, with no player, coach or employee staying away from the Ellis Park precinct because everyone felt “comfortable” with security arrangements.
The franchise has a commercial association with Fidelity Services Group, which includes its prominent security offering, and are understood to have a close relationship with Jeppe Police Station, which is a mere 800m away.
“We were quite comfortable with our working environment for the week,” said Straeuli.
“We’re very fortunate in terms of the intelligence at our disposal. We’re close to Jeppe SAPS and Fidelity has a footprint all over South Africa.
“Naturally, both parties gave us great information on which areas are no-go, but it was made clear to us that it’s quite safe to travel to Ellis Park.
“There are a lot of challenges facing the rugby industry.”
SA Rugby still needs to decide on whether the two teams will both receive four log points though the Lions were willing to forfeit that guarantee by travelling to Bloemfontein.
But the Cheetahs weren’t in favour of such an arrangement.
“There was no politics or anything involved in this decision. It’s my understanding that the Cheetahs had already told their players that they weren’t going to play,” said Straeuli.
“Their management felt it would be an uncomfortable situation if they now fell back on that decision.”
Ivan van Rooyen, the Lions’ head coach, admitted that the machinations were rather frustrating.
“Look, we need to keep in mind that there are a lot of other things happening in the country. Our obligation as a team is to keep staying strong and being an example for people out there who are struggling and need hope,” he said.
“The best way is to play. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t frustrating. We haven’t even informed the team yet, so there will be disappointed. Hopefully we’ll have our opportunity on Wednesday.”
Another headache is the fact that the Women’s First Division final between the same two teams was also to be played on Saturday.
“Unlike the Currie Cup game, this is a final. It can’t be cancelled. We’ll have to find a way to reschedule,” said Straeuli.