The Blitzboks and Kings have proven what can be achieved through commanding coaching, compelling inclusivity and a strong team culture, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
On Saturday night, the Kings clinched a remarkable 35-32 win over the Sharks to record a third successive victory of the season in front of a vociferous home crowd. On Sunday, it was the turn of the Blitzboks to steal the headlines as they clinched victory at the Paris Sevens to claim the World Rugby Sevens Series title in style.
Those two results, and indeed the performances of both teams this season, have served as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise widely polluted South African rugby landscape.
Where does one start? For consistency of performance, it has to be with the Blitzboks. Take a moment to absorb the fact that over 45 games in this season’s Sevens Series, the Springbok Sevens lost just eight matches, while claiming five Cup titles.
Make no mistake, this is a very special team. In fact, the work ethic, conditioning and system in place at sevens level is revered and respected throughout SA rugby circles.
Coach Neil Powell has been at the helm since 2013, and while many of the players view him as a father figure, he is also a strict task master who ensures that meticulous preparation is undertaken, while demanding the best from those under his command.
Powell has afforded his players the freedom to play without fear of failure, but has also reinforced a policy where they must take responsibility for their decision-making. Off the field, a culture of honesty and mutual respect are the fundamentals in an effective environment.
The Blitzboks have also enforced what they call an ‘in the box, out of the box system’. In short, the big box is seen as the system and game plan that everyone must follow, but inside of that the players are encouraged to get out of their comfort zones and play what’s in front of them.
In the context of our unique South African environment, the Springbok Sevens also lead the way as a transformation success story, where players are picked purely on merit, while all races, cultures and religions are embraced in a unique ‘family’ environment.
In many ways, there are plenty of similarities between the system embraced by the Blizboks, and that which has taken shape against all odds in Port Elizabeth.
Similarly to Powell, Kings coach Deon Davids was thrown in the deep end, and was forced to sink or swim. With little preparation time, a squad made up of numerous journeymen and limited resources, Davids faced a Herculean task to transform the Kings from easy-beats into a competitive force.
Yet, with a coaching history that had already familiarised Davids with ‘crisis management’, he has proven to be the perfect man for the job.
Davids has backed a host of young and talented players, who have thrived under his leadership, while also reigniting the careers of others searching for a second, third or even fourth chance, such as Louis Schreuder, Lionel Cronjé, Schalk Ferreira, Wandile Mjekevu, Luzuko Vulindlu and Waylon Murray.
All the while, the Kings have played with smiles, attitude and enjoyment, with every individual determined to make the most of each opportunity that comes their way. Short-term contracts? No problem. An uncertain Super Rugby future? No worries.
Instead, the Kings have gone from strength to strength, with their recent winning run certainly making a strong case for serious reconsideration about axing the Eastern Cape outfit from Super Rugby.
Not only this, but the Kings have once again illustrated its ability to serve as a unique feeder system for South African rugby, with newcomers such as Makazole Mapimpi, Andisa Ntsila, Yaw Penxe, Malcom Jaer and Masixole Banda quickly making a name for themselves.
Something special has clearly been brewing in PE. This is a team that is not only playing for their future, but with a desire to unite the people of Port Elizabeth, and to prove what can be achieved through pure guts and passion.
Indeed, the quality of the Kings’ performances have far exceeded expectations. The high-tempo brand of rugby has seen Davids' team rise to be ranked eighth for defenders beaten (217) – only one behind the Highlanders – while they have scored 37 tries (just one less than the Chiefs). In addition, the Kings have accumulated 19 log points (which is as many as Aussie conference leaders, the Brumbies).
All in all, the evolution of the Kings and Blitzboks has been a joy to behold this year. And at a time when there has been so little to celebrate in South African rugby, we should shout from the rooftops about these much-needed good news stories.
Photo: Derek Cain/Getty Images