The Kings' inability to be competitive in next year's Vodacom Super Rugby would cause irreparable damage to rugby in the Eastern Cape and to the brand of the South African game, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
As has been proudly proclaimed since the formation of the Kings, the justification for their Super Rugby inclusion has been to tap into a hotbed of black talent in a region rich with rugby history.
The Eastern Cape has long been acknowledged as the cradle of black rugby in South Africa, and the Kings franchise was installed as a key asset to aid the transformation of the game.
Under the guidance of astute director of rugby Alan Solomons, careful planning and intelligent recruitment enabled the Kings to field a competitive side during their debut Super Rugby season in 2013. The Kings’ victory over the Force in their first match was historic, and silenced many critics who felt the Port Elizabeth-based side was set to be an embarrassment.
In the end, they battled bravely throughout the campaign, impressively winning one game overseas and drawing another, while they were competitive in most of their matches played at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
The people of Port Elizabeth and surrounding areas also embraced the Kings and the opportunity to experience Super Rugby on their doorstep, with stadium attendances averaging over 30,000.
Although the 2013 incarnation of the Kings was criticised for not being representative enough, this overlooked the bigger picture. In his attempts to build a side that could compete on the Super Rugby stage, Solomons realised he was also creating a brand.
He wanted the Kings to become a side that young black players would aspire to play for in years to come. He hoped to create a sustainable, successful model that would ensure talented players who were born and bred in the Eastern Cape would have an opportunity to proudly play for their ‘home’ side, rather than seek to forge a rugby career elsewhere in the country.
Ultimately, that dream has failed to materialise. The Kings have been barely treading water since their demotion from Super Rugby, and the departure of Solomons.
Coaches have come and gone, and now players are heading for the door as funds have failed to materialise from a proposed sponsorship. Although the Kings announced on Monday that they had welcomed nine new players to their pre-season training squad, the fact remains that five influential players have already made their exit, while the recruitment process has been compromised by the financial chaos that has reigned.
There has to be massive concern over the Kings’ readiness – or lack thereof – to re-enter Super Rugby, and the consequences as a result. Should the Kings take a pasting each week, years of planning will be undermined, and another cycle of rebuilding would be forced to start from scratch.
The demands at Super Rugby level are extreme, as are the pressures on coaches, players and management. And with Saru and the Kings having constantly given assurances that the Eastern Cape franchise would be ready for their re-entry into Super Rugby, they will have to front up to the expectations that meet any side representing South African rugby.
For too long now, the Kings have appeared to represent South African rugby’s troubled laatlammetjie, where it's been a case of the ‘parental’ bodies wishfully hoping they'll successfully find their own way, rather than taking proactive steps to ensure this becomes a reality.
There has been a complete lack of accountability for the mire the Kings have found themselves in, with the powers that be painting a public picture of a very hands-off ‘father’ figure, rather than that of a decisive leadership body.
It will be an indictment of the highest order if the Kings are unable to hold their own on the high-profile Super Rugby stage, and with just over three months to go until the start of the competition, the Kings’ well-being needs to be reprioritised before more damage is done to the brand and name of the game in a key area on the South African rugby landscape.
Photo: Michael Sheehan/Gallo Images