The Lions Challenge will be a breath of fresh air when the innovative series gets under way in earnest on Saturday.
The Golden Lions Rugby Union need to be commended for conjuring up such a unique concept, which will see the Lions take on a total of 16 international and local teams ahead of the Super Rugby promotion/relegation play-offs in July and August.
The series kicks off against the Russian Bears this weekend and will also see the Lions face Samoa, Namibia, Montpellier, Mont de Marsan, Grenoble, Agen, the French Barbarians and the North American All Stars in addition to local sides the Bulls, Sharks, Cheetahs and Stormers.
Kevin de Klerk and company have dusted themselves off admirably after controversially being kicked to the Super Rugby curve by the South African Rugby Union (SARU) last year.
They have channelled their frustration into a positive venture that hopefully, due to its enticing international nature, attracts a fair number of supporters to the newly sponsorless Ellis Park.
The Kings have been made out to be the scapegoats of the sour South African Super Rugby saga, but SARU are to blame for the Lions’ exit from the southern hemisphere’s premier provincial tournament.
It is their lack of planning that has left the Lions in the wilderness and will threaten the 121-year legacy of Lions rugby as the union fight to stay afloat during the first half of 2013 without the rich revenue associated with a Super Rugby deal.
What has become clear during the dilemma is that the fighting spirit synonymous with Lions rugby has spilled over to the boardroom.
Instead of settling for a handful of friendlies against the South African Super Rugby sides and a Vodacom Cup campaign, the Lions took the ambitious initiative to launch a fresh series that ought to garner much interest and ensure that the Lions stay in the minds of the rugby-loving public.
The Johannesburg side are bound to benefit from facing top opposition and they should be fully prepared by the time they take on the last-placed local Super Rugby franchise for a coveted place in the 2014 15-team tournament.
With top stars Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute (both Stormers), Franco van der Merwe (Sharks) and Lionel Mapoe (Bulls) on loan to Super Rugby sides and the likes of Pat Cilliers, Michael Rhodes (both Stormers), Josh Strauss (Glasgow Warriors), Bandise Maku (Kings) and Jacobie Adriaanse (Scarlets) jumping ship, the Lions Challenge will also be an opportunity for youngsters to gain invaluable experience against international opposition.
As a result, Johan Ackermann may well unearth a couple of new stars and will develop a promising squad and solid depth ahead of the return of those loan players who do not form part of the Springbok squad for the Currie Cup.
The Lions Challenge is an ingenious concept and with it likely to be a one-off event, it should be embraced and well supported to aid the sustainability of one of the pillars of South African rugby.
By Quintin van Jaarsveld
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