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Spotlight on Bloemfontein

Paul Eddison

12 Aug 2017

Bloemfontein was the city which gave the world the author of arguably the most famous fantasy trilogy of all time – in more recent times it has also proven to be one of the rugby hotbeds of South Africa.

J.R.R. Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein back in 1892, although he moved to the UK at the age of three before going on to write the Lord of the Rings series.

It was in 1895 that the Free State Cheetahs came into existence but they would have to wait until 1973 to appear in the Currie Cup final for the first time.

Since then, appearances in the final of South Africa’s oldest competition have been much more commonplace, with the Cheetahs winning the tournament on five occasions – including last year.

The Toyota Cheetahs, also based in Bloemfontein, will begin their existence in the Guinness PRO14 away in Belfast against Ulster, before a first game at home in round three against Zebre.

Here we find out a bit more about Bloemfontein and its place as a rugby city in South Africa.

Home to Springbok stars

As one of the biggest rugby catchment areas in the country, Free State has produced countless Springboks over the years, including some key figures in South Africa’s World Cup win in 2007.

The great Juan Smith may be the most famous of them all, and was one of the most influential members of that Springbok team, but before him, Bloemfontein-born Pieter Muller was one of the greats in the 1990s.

The centre played 33 times for South Africa over a seven-year career that ended at the 1999 World Cup.

That World Cup also saw Jannie de Beer, born in Welkom – the second largest city in Free State – establish himself, famously kicking five drop goals to beat England in the quarter-finals.

More recently Heinrich Brussow was arguably the most impressive breakdown performer in 2009 during the Experimental Law Variations, while Adriaan Strauss was Springbok captain until the end of last season.

Grey College

It’s not just those born in Bloemfontein who have been important figures in South African rugby. In the prestigious Grey College, it has one of the largest talent pools in South Africa, with numerous Springboks having honed their skills there.

For Guinness PRO14 fans, arguably the most notable is Ruan Pienaar – the Ulster legend who spent seven years in Belfast.

Other South African greats include the Du Plessis brothers, Jannie and Bismarck, their namesake and legendary Springbok captain Morné and Francois Steyn.

Grey College is not simply a rugby school though, athletics superstar Wayde van Niekerk, the reigning Olympic and world champion over 400m, also attended the school, as did former South African cricket captain Kepler Wessels.

Record-breaking stadium

The Cheetahs play their rugby in Free State Stadium, a ground which has hosted Test rugby since 1960. In total 21 Tests have been played at the ground, with arguably the most notable coming during the 1995 World Cup, a game which didn’t actually feature South Africa.

In the pool stages, New Zealand beat Japan 145-17, a world record victory in which Marc Ellis scored six tries while Simon Culhane scored a world record 45 points.

More recently it was expanded for the 2010 Football World Cup, and now holds 46,000 people.