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Sat Dec 10 08:55:44 SAST 2016

Lions must turn business into their main attraction

Peter Delmar | 2013-08-20 23:42:03.0
Peter Delmar
Image by: The Times

The people who wandered in darkness have seen a great light.

Boundless was the rejoicing this weekend as the prophet Johan led us, his suffering people, safely out of the dark desert of banishment back into the land of milk and honey - and bonus points.

For a year the red-and-white people have suffered the ignominy of witnessing their champions playing against made-up teams in front of "crowds" that comprised not much more than their mums and dads and sullen ice cream vendors bereft of custom.

All that changed on Saturday as the once-seemingly endless travail ended and the mighty Lions roared back gloriously to the top of the rugby firmament in front of an almost full Ellis Park.

The aforegoing tends, as you may have noticed, ever so slightly towards what the curmudgeonly might consider hyperbole, informed by just the slightest touch of hubris.

But, if you ask me, in these dark days of depression, decline and decay, we all need the occasional bit of cheery hyperbole of the jolly-hockey-sticks variety. In case sports matters of the greatest and gravest import are not your cup of tea, and you're wondering what I'm banging on about this morning, let me explain: I'm trying to remind you of the gladsome tidings that the Lions will be playing Super 15 rugby again next year. Huzzah, huzzah.

This tremendous, even historic, achievement was secured because the Lions contrived to lose a promotion-relegation match to a team from Uitenhage or thereabouts by fewer than seven points. On Sunday the nation's biggest newspaper, ever one to hitch its star to the newest bandwagon in town, trumpeted the Lions' 18-23 loss to the Kings with: "Super Lions roar back".

This, of course, was just so much bunk but it gladdened my heart as it was the first ra-ra headline the Sunday Times had deigned to carry about the Lions in the past 20 years, our Currie Cup triumph of 2011 notwithstanding. (I once, half-seriously, threatened the sports editor with the Press Ombudsman because of his department's abiding prejudice against the poor old Lions.)

It has always rankled that Johannesburg, the city that does all the work, has had a second-rate team that, for the longest time, has lived in the shadow of teams from louche outposts such as Pretoria and Durban. Rugby is big business in Pretoria and Durban and, apparently, even in Cape Town (where the grapes come from) but not so much in the glittering City of Gold, despite Johannesburg having the best stadium out of the lot of them and the most cultured and best-looking supporters.

It was only three years ago that an arms dealer and a billionaire IT tenderpreneur bought 49.9% of the Lions - and only two years ago that they were bemoaning their investment - and only a year-and-a-bit ago that they were suing the same union for repayment of a loan they'd made to cover the wages bill. In business colleges up and down the land they must surely be using the Lions rugby franchise as a case study in how not to run a business.

At the end of the day, the supposed tribalism that passes for sporting fealty is a fleeting thing. It's all suspended disbelief and when the Lions failed, year after year, to get off the bottom of the Super rugby logs, we supposedly diehard fans eventually suspended our belief and stopped going without koeksisters so we could one day buy our sons miniature replica Lions rugby jerseys. And we certainly gave up trekking to dismal Doornfontein to watch our heroes being beaten up by brutes from one-horse antipodean towns like Dunedin and Canberra.

But when Prophet Johan Ackermann began to give us hope again, and the union offered seats for R20 on Saturday, the likes of me promptly bought a dozen tickets. I was to be disappointed, though, both by the team's performance and the lack of off-field diversion offered. Arriving an hour before kick-off, there was nothing for the youngsters in my party to do except gaze at drunken, pot-bellied white men from Brakpan and Krugersdorp getting drunker. Not even a curtain-raiser.

Before the next Super season kicks off I can only hope and pray that a) Elton Jantjes stops smoking whatever it was they taught him to smoke in the Western Province and that b) they recruit a few half-decent brains to run a business that, for too long, has taken its punters for granted.

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