The Lions' struggles in the upcoming Super Rugby tournament will put the Southern Kings saga into new perspective, writes JON CARDINELLI.
Around this time last year, you could feel the hate. With every email, tweet and Facebook message, the anti-Kings campaign gathered despicable momentum.
The anti-Kings brigade demanded to know why the Kings had been included at the expense of the Lions. They believed that the new team from the Eastern Cape would humiliate South African rugby.
The Kings would go on to defy the ignorant masses. They finished the season with three wins and a draw, a new record for a Super Rugby newcomer. In the process, they converted a lot of the naysayers.
Suddenly the embarrassment was the good-news story. The Kings and the Eastern Cape region were an inspiration, something South African rugby could be proud of.
To be fair to a lot of fans, they could not have known the details of the Kings' sudden elevation to Super Rugby. It was never a case of the Kings versus the Lions, but rather a move by Saru to accommodate an important franchise that had been ignored for too long.
I'm sure there are a number of people who still don't appreciate what the Kings achieved in 2013. Their Super Rugby status was confirmed as late as 12 August 2012, and the delay meant that they were limited in whom they could contract and what they could build.
The Kings secured a main sponsor in March 2013. That they were only guaranteed one year in the competition was a challenge in itself, from a rugby and financial perspective.
It's important to understand what the Kings endured in 2013, and what their replacements can expect in 2014. The Lions will face similar challenges, and will have tempered their expectations accordingly.
The Lions will be on a hiding to nothing in 2014, but will enjoy the benefit of an extended run at the elite level
There are, however, a few notable differences between the Kings of 2013 and the Lions of 2014.
For starters, the Lions won't have to rise above an irrational and ignorant hate campaign. I recall Kings captain Luke Watson telling me that it was one of the most trying times of his career, and that it was sad to see how hateful some people could be.
The Lions will also have the advantage of an extended spell in Super Rugby. On Thursday, Saru confirmed that the promotion-relegation series has been canned, with the Kings settling for a permanent place in the Currie Cup Premier Division.
The upshot is that the Lions are here to stay as far as Super Rugby is concerned. This is good news for the long-term, as they will now be able to put down roots and rebuild a once proud franchise.
It's not an ideal outcome for the Kings, who will have to wait until 2016 until they can attract some serious investors and big name players.
In 2016, all six franchises will have the chance to nurture young talent and build a Super Rugby team that can compete for the title. The Kings, however, will need to start from scratch.
The Eastern Cape remains a relatively untapped source of black rugby talent. In 2013, we were given an insight into the potential of the region, through the individual performances of players like Sergeal Petersen at Super Rugby level. Despatch won the inaugural Community Cup, while NMMU competed well in the Varsity Cup. Both of those sides were largely comprised of local players of colour.
The Lions will be on a hiding to nothing in 2014, but will enjoy the benefit of an extended run at the elite level. The same cannot be said for the Kings, who will now be made to wait.
It's important that we remember what was achieved by the Eastern Cape side in 2013, and the potential that was made plain for all to see. They may not be a part of the Super Rugby tournament this season, but South Africa should not forget about the Kings.
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