October 16, 2016 - I don't have good memories of my first trip to watch rugby at Bloemfontein 39 years ago.
It was 18 June 1977, and my dad decided a road trip to watch Transvaal play Free State in Bloemfontein was in order. Free State was the defending Currie Cup champion, having beaten Western Province 33-16 in the final in Bloemfontein the year before, this after losing the final to Northern Transvaal 12-6, also in Bloemfontein, in 1975.
Interest in rugby was at an all time high in 1977 after the Springboks recorded a 3-1 test series victory over New Zealand in South Africa in 1976, also the first test series that was ever broadcast live on television in our country as 1976 was the first year of television in South Africa.
Transvaal named what seemed a strong side for the match, with 3 players from the Springbok side from 1976 included, namely Johan Strauss at Tighthead, Paul Bayvel at Scrumhalf, and Gerald Bosch at Flyhalf. The two other Transvaal Springboks from 1976, Jan Ellis (Flanker) and Kevin de Klerk (Lock) was not in the team that day.
The team was: 15. Joe Coetser, 14. Carel Fourie, 13. Dries Maritz, 12. Tommy Symons, 11. Johan van Wyngaardt, 10. Gerald Bosch, 9. Paul Bayvel, 8. Peter Cloete, 7. Johan Claassen, 6. Corrie Pypers, 5. Salty du Randt (c), 4. Dirk Naude, 3. Johan Strauss, 2. Gerald Venter, 1. Richard Prentiss.
I was just 11 years old at the time, so I'm not 100% sure about the Free State team for that day, but I think it included players like De Wet Ras at Flyhalf, Gerrie Germishuys and Hermanus Potgieter on the Wing, Barry Wolmarans at Scrumhalf, Theuns Stofberg at Flanker, Gysie Pienaar at Fullback and Dirk Froneman at Centre.
So my dad, his younger brother Danie, a friend of my dad, Danie Greyling and myself, left for Bloemfontein early on the Saturday morning. Those days the N1 Highway didn't exist so it was a long drive from town to town to get to Bloemfontein. When we got there it was an icy cold day, and the stands in those days didn't protect us against the icy wind. The rugby that Free State dished up on the day was far from cold, they were in the mood for running rugby, and Transvaal looked like they forgot how to tackle, and the Final score was 50-9 for Free State, with our only points coming from 3 penalties by Gerald Bosch. I don't know how many tries Free State scored, but it was a lot, and keep in mind that tries only counted 4 points those days, as it was only changed to 5 points in 1992.
Fast forward to 2016.
The Lions lost quite a few of their players from the 2015 season to Springbok duty and had a bit of an up-and-down Currie Cup season, unbeaten at home but also only managing one win away from home (a 71-7 win against the poor EP Kings in Port Elizabeth). The Lions only just scraped into the play-offs by beating the Sharks two weeks before, winning 28-16 after trailing 13-0 at one stage.
On the weekend before the semi-final we decided to apply for media accreditation to attend the match, and then also received an invitation from the Lions to travel with their media shuttle to Bloemfontein. The Cheetahs approved our application and we were all set for the trip.
My thinking was that it would be a difficult match, with the Cheetahs enjoying an unbeaten run in the competition, but I certainly felt that we had a chance of causing an upset, this after we gave them a good match in Bloemfontein just a month ago, where we were leading 26-15 at Half Time but then let the lead slip with poor discipline to eventually lose 37-29. The only concern for me in our team that was named on the Thursday was that we picked two locks that as a combination was a bit on the light and short side.
We boarded the media shuttle at 8:30 on Saturday morning with 3 photographers and 5 rugby writers and our driver Pieter, also a huge Lions fan, and headed for Bloemfontein, accompanied by a Supporters Bus, also organised by the Lions, with about 50 enthusiastic Lions Supporters on board.
We got to Bloemfontein about 90 minutes before kickoff, and immediately saw quite dark clouds to the South of the stadium that looked like rain clouds, but we were assured by local rugby writer for Beeld/Rapport, Hendrik Cronje, that the rain in Bloemfontein comes from the West.
Unfortunately the rain did come down almost immediately after kickoff and made conditions tricky for both teams, with quite a number of players losing their footing during play.
The Lions were put under huge pressure by the Cheetahs right from the start, with the Lions pinned in their own half and the Cheetahs taking the lead with two early penalties to go 6-0 up.
The Cheetahs then scored the 1st try of the match when Sergeal Petersen took a brilliant pass from Cassiem and sprinted in for a try in the right corner. Sad to say that this try was scored after the Lions failed to find touch from a penalty. Marais kicked the conversion to put the Cheetahs 13-0 up.
About 10 minutes later Anthony Volmink was concussed when he shot up in defense to stop another Cheetah attack but went in too high in the tackle and clashed heads with the Cheetah attacker and came of second best. He was replaced by Sylvian Mahuza.
Shortly afterwards referee Rasta Rasivhenge lost patience with the Lions having conceded too many penalties in defense and yellow carded Flanker Cyle Brink. While he was in the sin bin the Cheetahs added another converted try and penalty for a 26-0 lead.
The Lions finished the 1st half strong on the attack but then a handling error close to the try-line saw them finish the half with this huge 26-0 deficit.
In the second half the Cheetahs put the result beyond any doubt when Niell Jordaan attacked the blind side from a ruck, catching the Lions defense sleeping, and scored a try, this in the 1st minute of the second half. In the end the Cheetahs ran out 55-17 winners, spoiling my Bloemfontein trip just like the team from 1977 did.
Julian Redelinghuys was injured during the second half of the match and left the field on a stretcher, and on the trip back to Johannesburg we received word from the Lions team doctor that it was a dislocation injury and that Julian was in hospital in Bloemfontein where he would be operated on on Sunday but that he was expected to make a full recovery, even though he would be ruled out of rugby for quite a while.
Looking at the 2016 season as a whole, it was a great year for the Lions and their supporters, with the team reaching the Super Rugby final and the Currie Cup semi-final, and then also the Under 19 and Under 21 sides reaching the finals where both teams will play Western Province next weekend. The ladies side also reached their final where they lost to Free State.
Lessons learned from this season is hopefully that you need to try and play knock-out games at home where you stand a better chance of winning them, but I am definitely a happy Lions supporter with the last two seasons going well and we are looking forward to a 2017 Super Rugby season where we can hopefully go one better.