The Kings’ famous win over the Waratahs last Friday served as an example of the fighting spirit we need to see more of in SA rugby, but it also provided a poignant reminder of the failed Eastern Cape project, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
On a weekend where most of the South African sides dished up such mediocre fare, it was quite refreshing that a reason to celebrate came from the most unlikely source, as the Kings fought back to secure a remarkable win in Sydney.
There’s been something about the Kings this season. Against many expectations, the Port Elizabeth-based side has boasted a swagger and competitive edge that has defied the resources at their disposal.
Coach Deon Davids has done a superb job working with what he’s got, to turn a squad of relatively unheralded players into a committed and close-knit group who appear to be playing for each other as much as anything else.
Last Friday’s win over the Waratahs may have been just the second of the Kings’ campaign, but they have been competitive in most of their matches, and finally found a way to sustain their intensity levels for the full 80 minutes.
Yet there was also a very meaningful subplot to the Kings’ passionate performance on Friday. As it is, all of the Kings players are on short-term contracts for the duration of Super Rugby only. Their futures remain decidedly unclear, as the Eastern Cape franchise is almost certainly set to be cut from the competition next year.
Indeed, in Friday’s post-match interview, emotional captain Lionel Cronjé provided some insight into the human factor that can often be overlooked.
‘It’s been an absolutely emotional tour for us with all the news about Super Rugby, there’s been a lot of pressure on our administrators and families at home,' he commented. 'You can imagine the pressure on the players after hearing all the news while away from home. It was just amazing to get this win over the Waratahs, who are previous Super Rugby champions and such a great outfit. I just give so much credit to the team and the management for fighting on. I can’t describe how proud I am of the guys.’
In the face of adversity, the Kings pulled together to display the sort of character and fighting spirit that served as a bright spot in a bleak weekend for SA rugby. It was also the sort of backs-against-the-wall performance that we desperately need to see from the Springboks this June.
During a torrid 2016 international, the Boks completely lost their identity, but it was also evident that they lost that determination and desire to put everything on the line for the players alongside them.
It’s often been said that the signs of a team in turmoil are reflected in the strength of the side’s defence, while players will often begin individualistic moves on the field as they look to advance their own cause, rather than that of the team. Does that sound familiar when one thinks back to the Boks’ 2016 end-of-year tour?
Ultimately, it stands in stark contrast to the efforts of the Kings this season. They’ve battled gallantly, but the unfortunate reality is that it’s all set to be in vain.
The Kings – and EP Rugby – are not financially viable for SA Rugby to safeguard their place in Super Rugby. Supporters in the region have also spoken with their feet as the crowd attendances at the impressive Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium have been particularly underwhelming this season. It’s a reflection of the public pride that has been lost as a result of the financial shenanigans that have beset the union over the past two years.
It’s a far cry from where the Kings were in 2013, but unfortunately, the financial and long-term oversights that were made at that time have served to send EP Rugby from the lofty heights of Super Rugby involvement to effective bankruptcy.
Really, it’s such a shame. Again this season we’ve seen talented local players such as Malcolm Jaer, Makazole Mapimpi, Masixole Banda, Andisa Ntsila and Chris Cloete all performing with remarkable aptitude.
These are now the type of players who will be snapped up by other unions as the traditional rugby stronghold of the Eastern Cape once again becomes a feeder system to franchises around the country.
With this in mind, let’s celebrate the Kings’ triumphant success last Friday. It could end up being the last one we see in Super Rugby. We can also hope that the sort of fighting spirit and brotherhood displayed by the Kings will once again be seen at Springbok level this year.
However, let’s not forget the human factor related to players who will be out of contract in a few months' time, and let's not overlook the fact that the Kings are once again set to fall out of Super Rugby in yet another letdown for the EP rugby region.
Photo: Peter Parks/Getty Images