‘New franchise no threat to Cheetahs’

Harold Verster has quashed rumours that the new Eastern Cape franchise will replace the Cheetahs or Lions.

Australian Rugby Union chief John O’Neill has been vocal in his support for the new Port Elizabeth-based franchise which will be launched when a Coastal XV plays the British & Irish Lions in June. O’Neill told Australian reporters the Eastern Cape team should replace one of the Lions or Cheetahs given the two highveld franchises’ poor record in Super Rugby. He also suggested the two teams rejoin to revive the Cats allowing Australia to claim the new franchise in an expanded Super 15.

Verster, the Cheetahs president, has slammed suggestions that his team no longer deserve a place in the competition. Speaking to keo.co.za, he said there’s no chance the Cheetahs will be replaced by the Eastern Cape franchise and that the Cheetahs should remain a part of the Super Rugby tournament as an independent entity.

“The Eastern Cape is not a threat,” Verster told this website. “I have been in plenty of talks with SA Rugby and the new franchise will not replace us in the current competition or in an extended Super Rugby tournament. If that happened it would kill rugby in this part of the world.

“There are a number of other options for them [the Eastern Cape] to consider [should they not win the right to play in the tournament], but they are not a serious threat to us.”

The Cheetahs finished 10th in 2006, 11th in 2007 and 13th in 2008. Having lost their first four matches in 2009, they are rooted to the bottom of the table. Verster remains optimistic, but admits it will be tough to better the finishes of previous seasons.

“It’s always tough to play away from home, and you see that only in recent years teams like the Sharks and Bulls have begun to get it right. We obviously can’t compete financially with these teams and lost 18 players at the end of last season.

“A couple of years ago we lost Rassie Erasmus and [fitness coach] Jacques Nienaber to the Stormers, and we recently lost our our team doctor Org Strauss to the Bulls. That is also down to financial constraints.

“We know that we have to pick things up on the field, as the red light is blinking. I know it’s not right to set a goal of a top eight finish at the beginning of the season, as that suggests you don’t want to win, but we have to be realistic.”

Verster’s gripe regarding the player-drain is a perennial one, but the real question here is whether the Cheetahs will ever be able to retain their top players or compete for a Super Rugby play-off spot.

“We have some wonderful juniors coming through – guys like Robert Ebersohn is one for the future. All the top senior guys are contracted for the next two years, as is the coaching staff,” explained Verster.

“The Super 14 is a tough competition but we’re confident that if we maintain the core of our team we are only going to get stronger. And seeing the potential in the junior ranks, we won’t want for talent.”

The Cheetahs face the Blues on Friday and the Highlanders next week. Should they lose both fixtures it will be the fourth straight year they’ve failed to win abroad.

“It is a concern, and while we have been a bit unlucky, there have been some disappointing performances,” said Verster. “That Reds match was especially bad and we dropped two balls over the tryline when we played the Force.

“We have a number of home games coming up, but we have to lift the standard.”

By Jon Cardinelli