Jon Cardinelli

Kings’ fairytale set for sad end

The Southern Kings are one defeat away from losing a lot more than just their place in the 2014 Super Rugby competition, writes JON CARDINELLI.

The Kings went down 26-19 in the first promotion-relegation match on Friday. Could they have given more? It's an unfair question to ask, and yet it's a question that may haunt them for the next two years.

In order to give themselves a chance of survival, the Kings needed to make a statement in that first match of the series. They needed to win in Port Elizabeth to put pressure on the Lions ahead of the second, decisive match in Johannesburg.

Unfortunately for the Eastern Cape newcomers, they simply didn't have the legs. The Lions were rusty and ill-disciplined, which was to be expected after a year in the Super Rugby wilderness, but they were certainly the fresher and more robust of the two teams. They outplayed the Kings physically, which was again to be expected, considering the Kings came into this clash after 16 matches in the unforgiving environment of Super Rugby. In more ways than one, the Kings were operating with depleted resources.

The Lions will now be favourites to win the second leg in Johannesburg, to win the series 2-0 and a place in the 2014 competition. It would take one of the great performances for a Kings side devoid of inspirational leaders such as Luke Watson and Andries Strauss, and without ace goal-kicker Demetri Catrakilis (right), to travel to the highveld and beat the Lions by eight points or more.

The Kings are on the verge of a series defeat. It will mark a sad end for such a promising franchise. They will have to wait another 12 months for the next promotion-relegation series, during which time they will face a number of losses and challenges.

Robbie Kempson, the head of the Kings academy, told me earlier this year that the franchise would suffer major losses at the junior level if there was no longer a Super Rugby team to aspire to. The whole franchise, and indeed the whole region, will be profoundly affected should the Kings lose to the Lions this Friday.

The romantics will want the Kings to do the impossible, to beat the Lions by more than eight points and thus retain their place in Super Rugby. The Kings have proved an inspiration for so many this season. They may have finished the league at the foot of the table, but they have broken all kinds of records and are the most successful newcomers in the history of Super Rugby. How great a comeback story would it be for this plucky team from the Eastern Cape to defy the odds and retain their Super Rugby status?

But before you answer that question, consider the loser in that equation. Because no matter how you try to spin it, somebody is going to lose out.

The Lions have battled this past season and another year in the wilderness would lead to further losses. They will be thrilled to go on and win this series, but in the back of their minds they will know that the chances are good that they will be back in a promotion-relegation fight next season, defending their right to remain in the top flight. If they progress to the elite competition, it could be for just one year.

They have already lost a number of players to competing franchises while several more have recently committed to European clubs. Some players could not wait until after the promotion-relegation series before making a decision. They had no choice but to accept other offers, some of which were enticingly lucrative.

The Kings will suffer, regardless of this weekend's result. It would be fantastic for the region if they could remain in the top flight, but whether they stay or go, they will operate in 2014 without some key personnel, most notably the grand architect of their relatively successful first season.

Director of rugby Alan Solomons is already in talks with Edinburgh about a possible move while other Kings coaches are seriously contemplating a move elsewhere. Even prior to this playoff series, the Kings had lost backline coach Brad Mooar, who has decided to move back to New Zealand.

There are no winners in the system that sees one team promoted for just 12 months and the other doomed to spend a year in the cold. This system will continue to hurt both franchises until 2016 when the Super Rugby format changes.

On that point, Saru, who initially implemented the promotion-relegation system, is moving to include all six franchises in a new format in 2016. It was reported on Saturday that South Africa will split from the other Sanzar nations if it has to, as things cannot continue as they are with one of the Lions or Kings spending a year in the wilderness.

It's a very necessary step for South African rugby, but one has to wonder how much damage will have been done by 2016.

The Kings have accomplished great things in 2013, but a lot of that work will be undone if they are relegated. The Lions could be promoted in 2014, but then relegated in 2015. Whatever progress they make in 2014, whatever momentum they build in their capacity as a team still facing significant challenges, it also has the potential to be stalled.

For the sake of both the Lions and Kings, 2016 cannot come soon enough.

Photo: Michael Sheehan/BackpagePix 
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