Lions up against the best
The Golden Lions Rugby Union (GLRU) have announced a schedule of 16 matches for their top players for the inaugural Lions Challenge series.
Following their controversial relegation from Super Rugby last year, the Johannesburg-based franchise have 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.
Lions supporters will have 12 matches, including a Super Rugby promotion/relegation game on August 3, to look forward to at Ellis Park.
"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," GLRU president Kevin de Klerk said at the launch of the series at Ellis Park on Thursday.
"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 were 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.
The Russian national squad, with 49 players and management, were currently in Gauteng and would be the Lions' first opponents on January 19.
Coach Johan 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 semifinals, 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."
January 19 – v Russia (Ellis Park) January 26 – v Cheetahs (Ellis Park)
February 2 – v Bulls (Orlando Stadium)
February 9 – v Kings (Ellis Park)
February 23 – v Namibia (Windhoek)
March 16 – v Mont de Marsan (Ellis Park)
April 13 – v US Invitational (Irvine)
April 20 – v North American Barbarians (Vancouver)
April 27 – v Chicago Lions (Chicago)
May 11 – v Agen (Ellis Park)
June 1 – v Samoa (Ellis Park)
June 8 – v French Barbarians (Ellis Park)
June 15 – v Stormers (Ellis Park)
June 21 – v Sharks (Ellis Park)
July 12 – v Montpellier (Ellis Park)
July 20 – v Grenoble (Ellis Park)
July 27 – Super Rugby promotion/relegation (away)
August 3 – SuperRugby promotion/relegation (Ellis Park).