In Profile: Sigma Lions
The British & Irish Lions kickstart their summer tour against the United Rugby Championship's four South African teams, starting with the Sigma Lions in Johannesburg this Saturday.
In the continued build-up to the 2021-22 season - the inaugural year in the club's new home - we profile the four South African franchises joining the United Rugby Championship, allowing supporters to familiarise themselves with our newest opponents.
The pride of Johannesburg
The Transvaal Rugby Union, with its headquarters in Johannesburg, was formed in 1889 after delegates from different clubs in the region decided to form a united rugby union to look after the well-being of the clubs.
Prominent clubs involved in the process were Pirates, Wanderers, Pretoria, Potchefstroom and Kaffrarians. Transvaal's first match was against Griquas in Kimberly in 1889.
The original colours used by Transvaal were dark blue and white jerseys, blue shorts and blue-and-white socks. It is unsure when the union decided to switch over to a white jersey with a red hoop with black shorts and socks.
There is also a school of thought that the union adopted the famous Kilmarnock strip of white top with red hoop as a Kilmarnock member, Alex Frew, captained them when they beat the British Isles touring team in 1903. These colours are still in use today. It is also from these colours that the teams’ nickname, "Rooibontes" came from.
Frew played for Diggers RFC and represented the Transvaal. After captaining Transvaal to victory over the touring British Isles team, Alex was selected to captain South Africa in the first of a three Test series. He scored a try in a drawn game, with South Africa winning the series.
It must have been strange for Alex captaining an international side against his home country and particularly pitting his wits against the Lions captain Mark Morrison, who had been his captain with the successful Scottish team of two years earlier.
Transvaal originally played in blue and white jerseys but switched to a white jersey with a single red hoop. It is unsure when exactly this change took place, but was this in homage to Alex Frew whose hometown team in Scotland, coincidentally, wear the same style of jersey?
To this day, the Sigma Lions wear these same colours. Alex died in Hout Bay, South Africa on 29 April 1947 aged 69.
The Golden Years
Even though the Lions are regarded as one of the most successful teams in South African rugby history, the union was for a long time regarded as the perennial underachievers.
After winning the Currie Cup in 1972 for the sixth time, supporters had to wait a further 21 years for the trophy to return to Johannesburg. Even though the pain of not securing the Currie Cup was somewhat soothed by winning the Lion Cup (a now extinct knock out competition) in 1986, 1987 and 1992, it was Currie Cup glory supporters were really craving.
The team did come close on a few occasions, but always seemed to fail at the final hurdle losing the final in 1974, 1986, 1987, 1991 and 1992. Finally however, under the guidance of Kitch Christie as head coach and Francois Pienaar as captain, the side was able to win the Currie Cup in 1993 with a 21-15 victory over Natal in Durban.
The union repeated their success in 1994 by beating the Orange Free State by 56-35 in Bloemfontain. This was however not the end of the union's success.
They also managed to win the 1993 Super 10 with a 20-17 win over Auckland – thus making the union the first South African team to win a trans-national title.
In 1995 Transvaal reached the final of the Super 10 again but lost to the Australian side Queensland.
The Lions won the Currie Cup again in 1999 when they beat the Sharks 32-9 in Durban, and were on the losing side in the 2002 and 2007 finals. They ended their 12-year trophy drought in 2011, beating the Sharks 42-16 in the final in Johannesburg.
The team had to rebuild again with new players and a new Head Coach in Johan Ackermann in 2012. With their new New Zealand-inspired style of rugby, they reached the Currie Cup final twice in a row, losing to Western Province in 2014 and winning in 2015 against Western Province at Ellis Park following an undefeated season.
After being promoted back to Super Rugby in 2014, the Lions have reached the Final in both the 2016 and 2017 campaigns. They have also produced a number of new Springboks including captain Warren Whiteley.
The Lions struggled in this season's Rainbow Cup competition, winning just a single match. The Johannesburg club came out on top against eventual finalists Bulls in Round 4, claiming a narrow 34-33 victory.
Young stand-off Jordan Hendrikse will start in the No. 10 jersey against the British & Irish Lions on Saturday night and is one to watch among the Lions' backline.
Hendrikse, who recently broke into the Lions team, has been playing for the Junior Springboks in a four-nation tournament held in Stellenbosch over the past two weeks, while the stand-off notched up 32 points to finish as the club's top points-scorer in the Rainbow Cup.
Full-back Ew Viljoen is another playmaker that will eager to build on a successful Rainbow Cup campaign, where the former Leicester Tiger finishes as the Lions leader in clean breaks (6) and metres made (214).