Kings crisis a blow for SA

The Kings shambles reflects poorly on Saru and on South African rugby in general, writes JON CARDINELLI.

We’ve known about the Vodacom Super Rugby expansion for some time. We’ve known that the Kings, who were relegated from the competition in late 2013, would be back in the Sanzar picture in 2016. And yet here we are, just three months before the start of the new 18-team tournament, and chaos reigns down in the Eastern Cape.

Several players have already exercised their right to leave the franchise and link up with competing teams. Others who have not been paid have accepted food vouchers from the South African Rugby Players’ Association. Kings president Cheeky Watson has been to Australia to plead with potential sponsors regarding the immediate release of funds.

Really, does this strike you as a team and organisation that is ready to compete in one of the toughest regional competitions in the world?

Saru president Regan Hoskins told that the ‘clock is ticking' with regard to the Kings’ situation. Hoskins expects the Kings to get their house in order over the next three months. Perhaps Hoskins believes that the Kings will overcome the off-field obstacles as they did in the buildup of the 2013 season. Perhaps the Kings will surprise a few of the bigger teams yet again.

But the present situation is very different to that of 2013. The Kings have suffered mass losses in terms of coaching and playing personnel over the past two years.

The most significant of those is director of rugby Alan Solomons. The decorated coach arrived in Port Elizabeth in 2010, and developed a competitive squad over a three-year period. Solomons then steered the Kings to several record-breaking achievements in the team’s debut Super Rugby season.

The Kings have failed to find a suitable replacement for Solomons. While they have continued to develop young talent – and most importantly, young black talent – they have battled to retain many of those players over the past couple of years.

The most recent financial crisis has contributed to further losses in personnel. They haven't been able to secure the signatures of several big-name players. The outlook for the Eastern Cape franchise is bleak. They will battle to avoid a string of humiliating defeats next year. Those results could hurt the image of South African rugby as much as that of the hapless Kings.

The year 2016 is an important one for South African rugby. Six teams will represent the country in a new Super Rugby competition. Saru has instructed these six teams to field more players of colour with the ultimate aim of improving the demographic make-up of the national side. By 2019, Saru hopes that the Springboks will be in a position to field a side that is 50% white and 50% black.

As CEO Jurie Roux confirmed at the unveiling of Saru’s Strategic Transformation Plan earlier this year, the Kings franchise is a crucial piece of the transformation puzzle. It’s vital that the unions make up the franchise function. It’s important that the franchise remains competitive, and that there is a drive to further develop the vast numbers of black talent in the region.

But if the current situation in the Eastern Cape is any indicator, then Saru and the Kings are a long way off from realising their goals. And it’s at this point that the question has to be asked whether Saru could have done more to aid the Kings’ development in the wake of the 2013 relegation.

Hoskins is stating the obvious when he says the clock is ticking. Indeed, it has been ticking since the Kings were relegated from Super Rugby in late 2013.

Eastern Province have not improved since joining the Currie Cup Premier Division in 2014, and the region has battled to secure top coaches and players in the lead-up to 2016. The recent revelations regarding the failure to pay players’ salaries has been an embarrassment for the franchise, Saru and for South African rugby in general. Sadly, even more humiliation could be in the post.

The optimists will say that the Kings have time to build over the next few years. They won’t have to worry about the prospect of relegation at the end of the 2016 season. But the Kings should not be in their current position, and certainly not three months before their re-entry to Super Rugby.

It has to be said that Saru – who fought for the expansion of the Super Rugby competition, the inclusion of a sixth franchise, and more specifically for the Kings – should not have allowed the situation in the Eastern Cape to deteriorate. While certain parties at the Kings must be held accountable for the current mess, Saru must share in the blame.

Photo: Michael Sheehan/Gallo Images

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Jon Cardinelli