Lions out to earn respect
Johan Ackermann (Gallo Images)
Johannesburg - Lions coach Johan Ackermann says they will be using the Lions Challenge to earn the respect of the South African rugby fraternity.
The union on Thursday launched the inaugural Lions Challenge series, which will see them feature in 16 matches to give their players some much needed game-time following a controversial relegation from Super Rugby last year.
The Johannesburg-based franchise organised matches against international teams like Russia and Samoa, a three-week tour of North America, five games against top French opposition, and fixtures against all five South African Super Rugby teams.
The series of games starts next weekend and ends on July 20, with Lions supporters having 12 matches, including a Super Rugby promotion/relegation game on August 3, to look forward to at Ellis Park.
The Russian national squad, with 49 players and management, are currently in Gauteng and would be the Lions' first opponents on January 19.
Ackermann's other international opposition will be on June 1 against Samoa, who will be in the country preparing for their quadrangular tournament against the Springboks, Scotland and Italy.
French powerhouses Montpellier and Grenoble, in contention for the Top 14 semi-finals, will visit in July.
The Lions will also play the Cheetahs, Bulls and Kings in the build-up to this year's Super Rugby competition, and the Stormers and Sharks during the June break.
"There's no doubt that we won't be treating these as friendlies. The team know that already," Ackermann said.
"We're going to be in competition mode. It is about earning back the respect we deserve and we will prepare for it as for any other Super Rugby season; the conditioning and tactics will be done in that same way.
"I hope the attitudes, heart and passion are at that same level because our one common goal is to win back promotion into Super Rugby."
Golden Lions Rugby Union (GLRU) president Kevin de Klerk said at the launch of the series at Ellis Park on Thursday they have put the Super Rugby debacle behind them and are looking to the future.
"We took major umbrage to the decision made in Cape Town last year to relegate us, and the easy route would have been to play the blame game and look for scapegoats," he said.
"But we have decided to get on with the rugby and ensure we continue to serve our stakeholders."
While the GLRU had been forced to loan out star players like Elton Jantjies, Franco van der Merwe, Jaco Taute and Lionel Mapoe, the Lions are confident the Challenge would provide enough of an incentive for the rest of their squad to remain with them during the year.
"To try and fit in a new competition when rugby is played somewhere in the world from January 1 to December 31 was very challenging, but if we had just set up a series of friendlies, then half our players would not be here by the time the promotion/relegation game comes along," said acting GLRU chief executive Ruben Moggee.Lions' fixture list for 2013 (which includes Lions Challenge matches and excludes Currie Cup games):
19 January: Lions v Russia - Ellis Park, Johannesburg
23 January: Lions v Cheetahs - Ellis Park
2 February: Lions v Bulls - Orlando Stadium, Soweto
9 February: Lions v Kings - Ellis Park
23 February: Namibia v Lions - Windhoek
16 March: Lions v Mont de Marsan - Ellis Park
13 April: US Invitational v Lions - Ervine, California
20 April: US Invitational v Lions - Vancouver, Canada
27 April: Chicago Lions v Lions - Chicago
11 May: Lions v Agen - Ellis Park
1 June: Lions v Samoa - Ellis Park
8 June: Lions v French Barbarians - Ellis Park
15 June: Lions v Stormers - Ellis Park
21 June: Lions v Sharks - Ellis Park
12 July: Lions v Montpellier - Ellis Park
20 July: Lions v Grenoble - Ellis Park
27 July: Super Rugy promotion/relegation first leg - TBA
3 August: Super Rugby promotion/relegation - Ellis Park