The Kings will never realise their potential as a South African powerhouse until their junior structures and financial issues are addressed, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Shocking. Humiliating. Damning. The recent performances of the Eastern Province junior sides have warranted such over-the-top descriptions. Indeed, the word ‘crisis’ doesn’t do the situation in the Eastern Cape justice. When one considers some of the results – the EP U21s lost 120-0 to the Golden Lions, 149-13 to the Blue Bulls and conceded 27 tries in the 173-0 defeat to Western Province – one begins to understand why the senior side continues to battle in the Currie Cup First Division and why the Kings are on a hiding to nothing in the Pro14.
The more things change in Eastern Cape rugby, the more they stay the same. There will always be talk of what the Kings franchise could achieve with the right structures and backing. At this stage, however, they are no closer to realising their lofty dreams than they were five years ago. By some accounts, they have fallen further behind. In 2013, SA Rugby magazine visited the region to find out what structures had been put in place to ensure sustainable growth. Cheeky Watson, the Kings chairman and EPRFU president at the time, gave a bold prediction. ‘Five years from now, we’ll be one of the top franchises in Super Rugby,’ he said. ‘In 10 years, we’ll be the biggest franchise in world rugby.’
Director of rugby Alan Solomons confirmed that the franchise had a ‘top-down’ strategy. He hoped the success of the Kings would attract new sponsors and inject some much-needed resources into the region. A successful franchise would ensure that Eastern Province and Border retained more of its homegrown talent. Robbie Kempson, the head of the academy, issued a warning: Super Rugby relegation would result in a mass exodus. The region would haemorrhage young talent like never before.
Fast forward to the present, and the Kings have been relegated from Super Rugby – not once, but twice in five years. The resultant losses have been devastating. As many as 28 players have left the region since Sanzaar confirmed in 2017 the franchise was surplus to requirements in a streamlined tournament.
Watson’s prediction now reads like a bad joke. The Kings no longer exist as a Super Rugby entity. The current team is in no position to challenge the top teams in the Pro14, and consists largely of Super Rugby castoffs and Currie Cup First Division players sourced from other regions.
Indeed, key stakeholders in Europe are starting to wonder if the inclusion of the Kings – who lost 20 of their 21 games in the 2017-18 tournament and had won one game in the 2018-19 instalment as at the beginning of October – was a mistake. The Pro14 bosses want the competition to grow to the point where it rivals the top club tournaments in England and France. That ambition will be compromised if the Kings continue to suffer heavy losses and bring the overall standard of competition down.
At home, people continue to wonder if the Eastern Cape franchise will ever get its house in order. Fans in the region have had their hopes raised and dashed too many times over the past decade to be optimistic.
The mood in Port Elizabeth was very different in 2017. The Kings broke several franchise records and finished ahead of the Cheetahs and Bulls in the final standings.
The fairy tale came to a bitter end, though, when Sanzaar reduced the number of teams in the tournament from 18 to 15 and the Cheetahs, Force and Kings were ousted.
The Springboks trained at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in the buildup to the Test against the Wallabies in late September. There were more fans at that training session than at any Pro14 game in Port Elizabeth last year, or so the jokers claimed. While the locals remain mad about their rugby – more than 41,000 people attended the Test between South Africa and Australia – they have lost patience with the Kings.
Deon Davids was among the spectators at that Bok training session at the Kings base. Later that evening, SA Rugby magazine caught up with him at a coffee shop overlooking Hobie Beach. The view towards Summerstrand contrasted the bleak picture painted by the Kings coach about the state of affairs.
‘Everyone knows the story about the Kings,’ Davids says. It’s a statement loaded with negative connotations.
Davids was contacted by then SA Rugby general manager Rassie Erasmus in the lead-up to the 2016 Super Rugby season. He had read about the Kings’ struggles in the newspapers. He had heard from his contacts in the Eastern Cape how challenging things were. The opportunity to coach at the highest level was too good to resist, though. He accepted the offer, knowing it would be unlike any coaching gig in the world.
‘We had to start from scratch when I arrived,’ he says. Again, it’s a statement the rugby public has heard before. Solomons said as much when he arrived in 2009. His good work was undone in the wake of the 2013 relegation.
‘We started to realise our potential in our second year together,’ Davids continues. ‘In a short space of time, we delivered players for the Boks and for the SA A team. We delivered staff for the national team. So I would hope people can look at all that and see what this franchise is capable of. We achieved that with very few resources.
‘You need quality coaches and players to be successful. You need a good support base and you need time to prepare and build a culture. We got that for a while, and we built something special. It was heartbreaking to see the reaction of the players when we learned that the journey was over. I’ve never seen so many big men crying at once.
‘I took a lot of strain during that period. To put so much energy into building something, and then to see it disappear…’. He shakes his head. ‘Then we heard about the opportunity to join the Pro14. I had to find the strength and motivation to build something new from the ground up.’
The Kings’ win over the Glasgow Warriors in Port Elizabeth provided the franchise and the long-suffering fans with something to celebrate. Nobody was surprised, however, when the Kings went down 54-14 to the Scarlets in Llanelli the next week.
Meanwhile, the EP junior teams continued to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. EPRFU president André Rademan called an emergency meeting in the wake of the U21 team’s 173-0 loss to WP. One source told this magazine the U21 side pulled out two days before the game against WP and players from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University were drafted in to make up the numbers.
SA Rugby magazine spoke to a couple of sources based in Port Elizabeth who have an insight into how the union is run. They suggested that local businesses and sponsors are keen to invest in the Kings and revive rugby in the region. That will never happen, though, unless there is a structural overhaul.
In 2015, Mzwandile Stick’s side won 11 of their 12 games in the group phase of the U19 domestic provincial competition. They finished with the best defence stats and were second only to the Bulls for points scored. Captain Jeremy Ward scored two tries to help his side win the final 25-23. It was one of those moments when everybody in South African rugby started to wonder if EP and the Kings might have a bright future.
In 2016, however, EP lost nine of their 12 games and finished sixth on the seven-team log. They lost every game in 2017 and were yet to record a victory in this year’s tournament by the end of September. The EP U21s won three and lost three in 2016. Like the U19s, they lost every game in 2017 and have been battling to compete in the 2018 installment.
The results tell only part of the story.
The margins of defeat have caused the union no end of embarrassment. The junior teams have suffered heavy losses, not only to the top sides in their tournaments, but also to teams near the bottom of the log. By the end of the 2017 season, the EP U19s had conceded 318 points more than the next-worst defensive side (Sharks). The senior side has been subjected to similar humiliation in the Currie Cup. It didn’t surprise many people to see EP finishing last in the 2016 Premier Division. In 2017 EP propped up the First Division log with a zero-from-seven record, and they had the worst attack and defence stats in the tournament. At the beginning of October, EP were still looking for their first Currie Cup victory since September 2015.
Davids maintains the region has potential. Putting the right structures in place, however, is evidently easier said than done.
‘There isn’t a strong support base for developing players here,’ he says. ‘We need a proper high-performance structure to ensure that we get a competitive advantage. We can’t continue with the current model, which is a bit top heavy. There aren’t enough players at the base. You’ve got to reverse that to ensure players are coming through. Then, when you lose someone at the top, you will still have younger players in whom you can invest and back.
‘A few years ago, this region had good academies,’ he continues. ‘Some of those players have come through and we have access to them now; guys like CJ Velleman, Brendan Brown, Siviwe Soyizwapi and a few others. They’ve benefited from the previous system. We haven’t had that kind of pathway for a few years, though.
‘It’s crucial for us to have that to ensure we have a natural flow. There are good schools in Port Elizabeth, East London and the surrounds who can supply players for academies and eventually the senior side. Border won all their games at Craven Week. If only we could put those players in a proper academy, we could ensure they come through and boost the Kings down the line.’
The Kings beat Glasgow in September with a team that featured more ‘outsiders’ than homegrown talents. Of the 23 players, only 10 were developed or schooled in the Eastern Cape. That says a lot about the players the Kings have lost in recent seasons, and how few of their young stars they’ve retained.
Davids hopes the sponsorship deal with Isuzu leads to significant changes across the board. The news has been well received by the players who, according to the coach, see some light at the end of this tunnel.
‘It’s a huge boost when you know that you, as a coach, may have more resources at your disposal, and that you may have a high-performance system implemented as a result of those resources,’ he says. ‘If we didn’t get that, we would be back to taking things on a year-by-year basis. There would be no proper long-term plan.
‘We have to ensure that we establish a strong connection between Eastern Province and the Kings. We’ve got to put in proper structures and get kids on the right path when they leave school. If we do it right, we can ensure that the next crop of Siya Kolisis come through and that we have the chance to keep them here.’
The Kings are guaranteed a place in the Pro14 until 2023. If they don’t find a way to lift their standard sooner rather than later, they may once again find themselves in the rugby wilderness. Some have pointed to the Kings’ competitive performances at home as a sign of potential and progress. Over the course of the 2017-18 tournament, the Kings averaged 25 points scored and 36 conceded in matches played in Port Elizabeth.
What is important to note is that many of the bigger clubs have sent weakened sides to South Africa and that few, if any, Test stars have been considered for matches in the Eastern Cape. Last season, the Kings averaged nine points scored and 44 conceded in matches played abroad. The struggle to compete in Europe has been written off as inexperience, but one also has to consider that the northern teams field stronger combinations when hosting the Cheetahs and Kings. That average scoreline is a fair reflection of the gap between the Kings and most of the Pro14 teams.
Davids has a three-year contract and will, in theory, be with the Kings for another two seasons. What will happen to the franchise if he is snapped up by another union or club, though? There have been rumours linking him to the Bulls and the Boks. One would hope that a new plan to help the franchise and the region will take root before he moves on.
‘The fact that we are in this competition makes it easier to plan,’ Davids reiterates. ‘If things are done properly, I don’t think it will matter too much who is in charge. Those structures are what’s important.’
How far could this side go with the right backing? I ask Davids to paint a picture of what the franchise and rugby in the region could look like in 2023. That he’s reluctant to do so is yet another indication of the challenges facing him and this team.
‘I want to see a successful Pro14 team pushing for a playoff place. I would love to see the EP team, as well as the U19 and U21 teams, doing well. I would like to see a high-performance programme and an academy that doesn’t have to stand back for any in the world. You want to see a good picture on and off the field. You want to see good pathways for coaches and players. It would be immensely satisfying to know that system is in place and that the Kings have everything they need to have a strong Pro14 campaign in future.’
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Players who have moved on since the Kings’ 2017 Super Rugby exit
Martin Bezuidenhout (Bourgoin, France)
Thembelani Bholi (Bulls)
Alshaun Bock (SWD Eagles)
Chrysander Botha (Welwitschias)
Chris Cloete (Munster, Ireland)
Lionel Cronjé (Toyota Verblitz)
Pieter-Steyn de Wet (Aurilliac, France)
Ross Geldenhuys (Bay of Plenty, New Zealand)
Stokkies Hanekom (on loan from Golden Lions)
Kurt Haupt (Worcester Warriors, England)
Chris Heiberg (Force, Australia)
Irné Herbst (Benetton, Italy)
Malcolm Jaer (Cheetahs)
Mzamo Majola (Sharks)
Makazole Mapimpi (Sharks)
Wandile Mjekevu (Toulouse, France)
Waylon Murray (Mâcon, France)
Tyler Paul (Sharks)
Louis Schreuder (Sharks)
Ricky Schroeder (retired)
Johan Steyn (SWD Eagles)
Johan Tromp (Welwitschias)
Stefan Ungerer (Pumas)
Schalk van der Merwe (Ulster, Ireland)
Wilhelm van der Sluys (Exeter Chiefs, England)
Dayan van der Westhuizen (Bulls)
Stefan Willemse (Pumas)
Mzwanele Zito (Carcassonne, France)
RECENT BOKS WITH EASTERN CAPE ROOTS
SIYA KOLISI (CAPTAIN)
Kolisi grew up in the township of Zwide, outside Port Elizabeth. He attended Grey High School and represented Eastern Province at age-group level and at Craven Week before moving to Western Province.
Am was born in King William’s Town and attended De Vos Malan High School. He played his junior rugby for Border and eventually made his Super Rugby debut for the Kings in 2016. He now plays for the Sharks.
Bosch was born and bred in Port Elizabeth and attended Grey High School. The flyhalf represented Eastern Province at age-group level, and caught the eye of SA Schools selectors and scouts from other unions when he starred for the Craven Week side in 2015. He was subsequently snapped up by the Sharks.
Dyantyi was born in Ngcobo. He represented Border in the U13 Craven Week, but went unnoticed by provincial selectors while playing rugby at Dale College. He received his big break with UJ in the Varsity Cup, and made his Super Rugby debut for the Lions in early 2018.
Born in Mdantsane, Mapimpi went to school in King William’s Town. He represented Border in his youth and made his Super Rugby debut for the Kings in 2017. He moved to the Cheetahs thereafter and is currently with the Sharks.
Note: Lionel Mapoe and Sikhumbuzo Notshe were also born in the Eastern Cape.
– This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.