When the Southern Kings make their long awaited Super Rugby debut they will do so as the most polarising franchise in the tournament’s history.
After years of lobbying for inclusion in the world’s pre-eminent provincial Rugby Union tournament and receiving empty promise after empty promise, the Port Elizabeth-based Kings’ wish will become a reality when they welcome the Western Force to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium for their first ever Super Rugby match on February 23.
However, before a minute of rugby has been played, the Kings already have the reputation as the red-headed stepchild of Super Rugby. This is largely – but not entirely – due to the farcical manner in which the South African Rugby Union went about their inclusion.
Promises were made and broken, and when SANZAR predictably rejected the lopsided request for a six-team South African conference, it became a case of the Kings versus the Lions, the last-placed South African side in the 2012 season.
Confirmation that the Kings’ debut would come at the expense of the Lions created a deep gulf in the landscape of South African rugby. On the one side, irate Lions supporters questioned the merits of the Kings’ inclusion, a team who had tried and failed in spectacular fashion to earn promotion from the First Division to the Currie Cup.
On the other side, elated Kings supporters felt the merits to be irrelevant; the untapped talent in the Eastern Cape had been ignored for far too long they argued. Indeed, the Kings’ road to Super Rugby could – and should – have been much smoother. Instead, it’s been marred by political potholes riddled with racial undertones.
It might not have been the high road Cheeky Watson and company had hoped to travel, but it would be inaccurate to put the onus of the fallout squarely on SARU. Be it intentionally or unintentionally, the Kings portray a sense of arrogance and ungratefulness through their actions.
Suddenly, a season of Super Rugby is no longer sufficient; the Kings now demand long-term security. Two foreign players won’t do; they want at least five and, while the decision is merited, having Luke Watson, the most controversial character in South African rugby, as the poster boy of the franchise won’t win over many new fans either.
It is their abrupt U-turn on aiding transformation and affording local black talent greater opportunities, however, that has made the Kings the most enemies. Luke Watson in a recent interview explained that the late confirmation of the Kings’ participation in the 2013 Super Rugby season meant they had to look elsewhere to assemble a competitive side.
While there is some truth and logic to that statement it doesn’t excuse the fact that there is a severe lack of home grown players in the squad. Any upstart franchise would be remiss not to jump at the opportunity to acquire experienced Super Rugby campaigners like Steven Sykes, Andries Strauss and Bandise Maku and a promising young pivot like Demetri Catrakilis.
But should that be at the expense of the men who carried the Kings to silverware in the First Division, stalwarts like 2012 franchise player of the year Tiger Mangweni and Wayne van Heerden, who were omitted from a 40-man squad, and the cream of the Kings Academy crop? Surely not.
There needs to be a balance between battle-hardened mercenaries and up-and-coming local talent, irrespective of the length of the Super Rugby stint, to suggest that those initial claims weren’t hollow words.
That the Kings are in for a baptism of fire on the pitch is a given, but the franchise can expect more criticism and challenges off the field as well. Granted, SARU played their part in damaging the reputation of the Eastern Cape franchise, but the Kings aren’t entirely the innocent victims they let on to be.
By Quintin van Jaarsveld
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