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Cheetahs are in good hands, says Verster

Posted on Thursday, 18 Nov 2021

Cheetahs are in good hands, says Verster

When Harold Verster retires at the end of November as managing director of Free State Cheetahs (Pty) Ltd, he will be able to reflect on a long and satisfactory career, but also one in which he had to overcome many setbacks and obstacles.

Verster, who in 1974 and 1975 represented Free State in 15 matches (he and the late Kleintjie Grobler were the only ones to play in all 12 matches in the 1974-season), succeeded the late Steve Strydom in 1993 as president of the Free State rugby union and accepted the appointment in 1997 via SuperSport of managing director of Free State Cheetahs (Pty) Ltd.

With him at the helm, Free State in 1996 became the first rugby union in South Africa to adopt a new name and logo: the Cheetah. “My brother Basie deserves the credit for this, as he felt that the agile and fast Cheetah personified the running rugby for which the Free State rugby team became known and loved for over the years.”

In Verster’s time as president and later managing director, the Free State Cheetahs produced many Springboks, including women Springboks, in all the rugby codes as well as top coaches such as Rassie Erasmus, Jacques Nienaber, Franco Smith, Daan Human and Neil Powell.

Good progress was also made on the transformation front. Since Hanyani Shimange in 2004 became the first Free Stater of colour to be awarded Springbok colours, the union produced 20 Springboks, of whom 9 were coloured: Gurthrö Steenkamp (2004), Bevin Fortuin (2006), Kabamba Floors (2006), Ashley Johnson (2009), Raymond Rhule (2012), Trevor Nyakane (2013), Cornal Hendricks (2014), Oupa Mohoje (2014) and Ox Nche (2018).

“I am proud of the legacy I’m leaving behind. We developed a new stadium for the 1995 World Rugby tournament and expanded it again for the 2010 Soccer World Cup tournament.  We were also one of the first unions in the country which – in partnership with SuperSport – formed a company,” says Verster.

Mainly owing to his efforts, Vodacom and later Toyota came on board as main sponsors, the latter since 2011.

Verster also dedicated himself to obtain the Super rugby franchise for South Africa’s central region by involving several experts to prepare the bid for the expanded 2006 Super14 competition. So good was the Cheetahs’ bid that it was judged by the bid committee to be – along with that of Western Province – the best of the six applications.

“There were many highlights, with our six Currie Cup wins (one shared with the Blue Bulls) on top of the list. The one that stands out, however, has to be the victory in 2005 against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, especially because of the Cheetahs’ stunning effort in the final minutes when everybody thought it was a lost cause.”

As a player, the big highlight was the memorable match on 29 June 1974 for Free State against Willie-John McBride’s famous and feared British & Irish Lions which Free State lost in the last minute by a narrow margin of two points (9-11).


There were also tough times. He points out that no other big union or franchise in South Africa had to fight for its place in the sun over the past two to three decades as much as the Cheetahs. “The Cheetahs had to fight for survival in the Super series and then the European Pro series, while the other big franchises were able to proceed without any hindrance. There were court cases, arbitration and long debates: really very exhausting and gruelling.”

Verster points out that it is often stated that Bloemfontein cannot compete on a commercial level with other entities such as those in Gauteng, Durban and Cape Town. “Free State’s strength, however, lies in the union’s rugby culture, passion and love for the game, hence our massive contribution of coaches, players, fitness experts, referees and administrators to the rest of the country.”

He is extremely exited about his successor. “I have known Ross van Reenen since we played for the Shimlas and the Cheetahs more than forty years ago. He is a solid, strong individual with enormous knowledge, expertise and business sense. I have no doubt that he is the right man for the job. A challenging time awaits him, but I will as a management consultant assist him for a couple of months to ensure a smooth transition.”

Verster says he is thankful that the Cheetahs have strong leaders such as the chairman, Ryno Opperman, and president, Jerry Segwaba, to take the union forward along with Van Reenen. “The Cheetahs are in good hands. Both the union and the company have a strong corporate structure with good co-operation between the two entities. We have survived through tough times and have lost some battles, but we are busy winning the war. I am satisfied that I’m leaving behind a union and a business enterprise with enormous potential.”

He says he has many pleasant memories of Free State rugby, but what stands out most and are permanent of nature, are the friendship ties between coaches, staff and players.

“My wife, Erica, often says since my involvement in rugby, not a day has gone by without a new challenge. This has been the case seven days a week and every month of every year. My involvement with Free State and Cheetahs rugby has nonetheless been a privilege and a wonderful part of my life.

“It is now time for me to step away and spend some time with my wife, children, grandchildren and family. They deserve it.”

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