In a time of need, members of the rugby community have come to the aid of the embattled Kings, writes JON CARDINELLI in the latest SA Rugby magazine.
For too long, the Southern Kings have fallen foul of the self-serving – and in some instances, incompetent – villains within the Eastern Cape rugby administration. In the latest chapter of this sorry story, poor governance and financial mismanagement have led to the Kings and its feeder union Eastern Province shutting down for the remainder of the 2020 season.
While this raises questions about the future of the franchise, the immediate concern is for the players and coaches who have been left without contracts, salaries and the means to support their families.
SA Rugby confirmed the liquidation of the Kings on 19 September. When the official statement dropped, it was accompanied by a timeline that listed the franchise’s lowlights over a period of 10 years.
Poor leadership, suggested the statement, has prevented this particular bird from taking flight. Long-suffering fans of the Kings and others well acquainted with this tale of woe may have recognised the message as a familiar refrain.
And yet, when several Kings coaches and players took to social media and pleaded for financial assistance, the extent of this crisis hit home. It also served to show that there are people at the franchise, and in the greater sporting community, who still believe in the potential of the region.
Braam van Straaten, a former Springbok flyhalf, was the first to speak out. In the first of a series of videos – which have since fallen under the banner of the ‘Care4Kings’ campaign – the Kings assistant coach explained the plight of his charges in no uncertain terms and went as far as to beg for the public’s support.
In a subsequent video, Van Straaten pledged his Springbok blazer to an auction aimed at generating income for the 52 families affected by the sudden liquidation.
‘We need to give our people some hope,’ Van Straaten says. ‘That Springbok blazer is important to me in the sense that it represents what I stand for. But how could I not auction it off to help someone in need? This is about something bigger than a blazer.
‘We are trying to create awareness about our situation. We want to create something that can keep people afloat during this crisis. We also want to make sure something like this never happens again.’
In August, the Kings coaches and players were told that the franchise and Eastern Province would cease to compete in all competitions due to financial constraints. They were assured that their salaries would be paid for the remainder of the season.
Three weeks later, however, just six days before payday, the players were summoned to a meeting at the EPRU offices in Port Elizabeth. They were told they would not be paid at all.
While Van Straaten’s campaign has gained traction and support, the players still live with day-to-day anxieties and challenges. Some may recover and find employment at other franchises and clubs. Most, however, will battle to find a paying gig at this stage of the season. The younger players, with little to no experience of professional rugby, may battle to kick on at all.
‘That was the first contract for some of the Kings players and thus their first stepping stone to a career in rugby,’ says Van Straaten. ‘Take that away and you take away their dream to become a star in the sport.’
For now, the coaches and players are going out of their way to support one another. The Care4Kings campaign has highlighted the contrast between the integrity of the greater rugby community and that of the Kings administration.
‘My hat’s off to Braam,’ says Bobby de Wee, one of the Kings senior players. ‘That initiative he’s set up has gathered momentum and we are all incredibly grateful.
‘I can only imagine what it means for a guy like Braam to auction his Springbok blazer – I mean, that’s something anyone would be proud to have, as it represents a special achievement.
‘It shows his level of commitment to the players. What Braam is doing won’t set these families up for the rest of their lives, but it will help out. If you can say to a family that hasn’t had a regular income for three or four months, here is R10 000, it can make a difference.
The movement has received significant support over the past two months. World Cup-winning Springboks Eben Etzebeth and Frans Malherbe, South Africa assistant coach Mzwandile Stick and former Boks like AJ Venter and Lionel Mapoe are some of the big names who are using their influence to further the cause.
‘I am who I am today because of the foundation I was given to me by the Southern Kings,’ said Stick, upon donating a Springbok jersey signed by the 2019 World Cup winners. Stick hails from New Brighton near Port Elizabeth and has a long history with Eastern Province, first as a player and more recently as a coach.
‘I know we’re all going through tough times at the moment but what you guys are going through at the moment is really painful,’ Stick said. ‘I am 100% in support and I feel the pain.
‘I’m donating this jersey for you guys to fundraise … I want to ask all the people out there, the supporters, business people, who love and care for the Kings, to make sure you put your money where your mouth is.
‘This is the jersey,’ he added, holding it up to the camera. ‘A historical jersey in South Africa. A World Cup-winning team. Please, let’s make sure we support the Kings. I am with you gentlemen in heart and with everything. As we always say in Springbok rugby, we are stronger together.’
Van Straaten admits he’s been hurt by the ordeal. Yet he’s determined to find a solution to the problem at the Kings in the short and long term.
‘I can’t just walk away from those in need,’ he says. ‘We can’t leave a man behind enemy lines. We’ve got to look after everyone. That’s why we’re working with various partners to put together auctions and fundraising projects.
‘We always hear of rugby being a brotherhood. This is a good opportunity to prove it. The response has been heartwarming thus far, it’s great to see how much people care – and I’m talking about people who are not even fans of the Kings. They’ve recognised the need for support.
‘There is a long-term goal at the franchise. The first priority, though, is to ensure everyone who has been affected is assisted. We hope this will gather momentum and grow into something big.
‘We acknowledge what has happened,’ he adds. ‘It was a negative thing. We’ve got to make sure this never happens in South African sport again. But that’s water under the bridge in the sense that we have to look forward; we have to be positive about what we can do to change things. We have to hope that the phoenix will rise from the ashes, stronger than it ever was before.’
KINGS’ HISTORY OF STRUGGLE
– November 2010: SA Rugby announces intention to field the Southern Kings in Super Rugby in 2013.
– February 2013: Kings compete in the Super Rugby competition as one of five South African teams.
– August 2013: Kings lose place in Super Rugby in a two-legged play off against the Lions.
– November 2015: SA Rugby takes control of the franchise when EPRU, to whom the operation of the franchise had been granted, ran into financial trouble.
– February 2016: Kings return to Super Rugby when the competition expands to 18 teams.
– April 2017: Sanzaar announces that Super Rugby will contract from 18 teams to 15 teams in 2018.
– September 2017: The Kings and Cheetahs are included as South Africa’s groundbreaking representatives in the PRO14 competition.
January 2019: Private company GRC acquires 74% shareholding in the franchise; EPRU retain a 26% shareholding.
– June 2020: SA Rugby resumes control of the Southern Kings after the failure of GRC to meet contractual commitments.
– August 2020: Southern Kings withdrawn from potential domestic competition because of financial challenges.
– September 2020: The board of SA Super Rugby (Pty) Ltd – which trades as the Southern Kings – places the insolvent company into voluntary liquidation to secure the longer-term financial future of rugby in Eastern Province.