In the ever-changing landscape of South African sports and more specifically, South African rugby, two things have remained constant: The Free State being considered a breeding ground for rugby talent in South Africa and the loyalty the franchise has shown towards former players. It is with this is mind that one has to question what has happened to a union that has always been considered a stalwart of SA rugby.
One can argue that the transition from Super Rugby to Pro14 is a difficult one and that one should bear that in mind when assessing the Cheetahs performance in the European competition but that is simply not the case.
The fact of the matter is that the Cheetahs have somehow become content with a form of mediocrity and measure their annual successes in terms of player losses and other external factors, rather than log positions and wins achieved. It seems that the excuse of losing a ton of players every season, though it may be factual, has become all too convenient.
In fact, it’s so convenient that even non-Cheetahs fans talk about it year in and year out with a sense of sympathy towards the central franchise.
Though one cannot argue with the fact that losing in excess of 13 players at the end of last season has disrupted the team to a large extent, the inability to replace these players with experienced footballers is a major concern. The Cheetahs have always been considered a “smaller” union from a financial point of view and has always struggled to retain their star players or attract other players with lucrative contracts.
The prospect of moving up North promised to curb this annual occurrence, at least to a certain degree, as the franchise would have received a significant amount of money as part of their agreement to leave Super Rugby, as well as the financial benefits of playing in the Northern Hemisphere. Their first season was marred by the lack of signing seasoned players and a constant disruption especially towards the end of the season, as they lost a significant number of key players to other South African franchises, Japan and Europe.
By the end of the 2017/2018 season, the Cheetahs had to replace their three key individuals in Rory Duncan (coach), Francois Venter (captain) and Torsten van Jaarsveld (vice-captain). Among the others that left for greener pastures were experienced campaigners such as Raymond Rhule, Sergeal Petersen, Uzair Cassiem and Fred Zeilinga. The situation wasn’t unique as this has become the norm for the men from Bloem. The concern lies in the fact that they failed to recruit any real seasoned campaigners to replace these players for the new season.
Dries Swanepoel has been the only so-called “major” signing for the Cheetahs this season. The inability to sign even fringe players from other franchises is astonishing to say the least, especially when you consider what the prospect of playing in a European competition can offer players in terms of exposure.
This brings us back to the traditional trademark of Free State rugby: the union’s inability to look and think outside of the box.
There seems to be a mental block, a fear and anxiety of some sort, that prohibits the Free State Rugby Union powers that be from appointing key individuals in their coaching staff from beyond the borders of the Free State province. We do need to acknowledge the sense of pride and loyalty shown towards previous servants of the union but the strive to protect your legacy, brand of rugby and identity cannot be considered of such value that it leads to your own demise.
Where other unions have tried to change their approach, culture and way of thinking, the Cheetahs have applied the same principles for the past two to three decades. From Colonel Peet Kleynhans and Gysie Pienaar coaching the Free State for the best part of two decades without any mentionable success, the union has only ever appointed former Cheetahs players as head coaches in the union. That includes the current, soon to be former director of rugby, Franco Smith.
The Cheetahs’ record over the past twenty years in competitions beyond the Currie Cup has not been great to say the least. Their failure to attract and retain Springboks and highly-talented players can be attributed to their inability over this period to establish a winning culture. Players know all too well that they get more exposure and are more visible as individuals when playing in winning teams. You cannot disregard the monetary aspect and the fact that many local and overseas teams are in a position to offer star players more money but even when losing a high profile player, they have been unable to replace them with a player of the same quality.
Use Francois Venter as an example. A highly-talented, young player who propelled himself to the Cheetahs’ captaincy and a call-up to represent the Springboks in 7 tests in the space of two years. After leaving for Worcester at the end of the 2017/2018 season, his departure should have left a relatively competitive budget to recruit a replacement player. Needless to say, this did not happen, as has been the case with many Springboks and star players that have left the union over the years.
In the wake of the departure of Franco Smith, Daan Human (forwards coach) and Dave Williams (attacking coach), the Cheetahs sit with a golden opportunity to cast their nets as wide as possible and appoint an independent, experienced coaching staff that can move the team and its structures forward.
Media reports suggest Matt Proudfoot and Deon Davids are both in the running and it will be invaluable to the future of the union if they can attract someone of these candidates’ calibre. Proudfoot’s experience and involvement at the highest level of the game speaks for itself, while Davids has managed to achieve quite a lot under the most difficult circumstances with the Kings. They will bring a much-needed new perspective to a team that has been stuck in its ways for far too long.
Cheetahs supporters all long for the exciting, goose-flesh inducing brand of rugby that their team is known for producing. Most of all though, they long for their team to win. Regularly. The time has come for the Cheetahs to eliminate their underdog status, forget convenient excuses, become competitive and operate in the professional manner in which the teams they compete with do.
A call to learn from one’s mistakes is nowhere more applicable than to the Free State Rugby Union, as they have over the years more than proven the saying that the nice guys, all too often, indeed finish last.
Follow Arno on Twitter: @ArnoOB01