This weekend saw the much-anticipated return of Super 15 rugby. The players have spent months honing their bodies for the coming months of pulverising collisions. All eyes will be on the traditional powerhouses this season – teams such as the Brumbies, Crusaders and Sharks- but the progress of the Southern Kings will be fascinating.
The Southern Kings are not well known outside of South Africa. Northern hemisphere rugby fans would probably hear the name and assume they were a rock band, fast food chain or a Hollywood sequel to the Three Kings blockbuster. In fact, the Southern Kings are Super 15’s new boys based in Port Elizabeth.
If this season unfolds as anticipated, the Kings will soon become the paupers.
Who are they?
The Southern Kings are a mixture of rugby compromise and bureaucratic experiment. The SARU has long flirted with the idea of forming a new franchise to nurture rugby in an underrepresented region. Many sports in South Africa have dabbled with quotas and projects to overcome the sporting legacy of apartheid.
The Eastern Cape is the ‘black’ stronghold of rugby. Nowhere else is rugby so popular or loved in such numbers, by black South Africans. The Kings are an attempt to provide these players with opportunities and develop the Eastern Cape to its full potential.
The Kings draw players and fans from the Eastern Cape and parts of the Western Cape of South Africa. The King’s castle will be the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, in Port Elizabeth. It is a magnificent sporting cathedral which hosted fixtures in the 2010 football world cup.
How have they got here?
The Kings ascended to their throne after the Lions were ‘relegated’. The Lions –formerly the Cats- were toothless last season and propped up the table. Despite boasting players such as Butch James and CJ Van Der Linde, the Lions played like paper tigers and could not escape the basement.
The SARU then voted to replace the Lions with the Kings. England has had several embarrassing controversies over relegation and promotion, but at least a team’s fate is not decided by a straw-poll.
Relegation Play off:
Intriguingly, the bottom placed South African franchise will be plunged into a two-match relegation series with the Lions in late July. This is modern rugby’s equivalent of hurling slaves into Rome’s Coliseum to fight for survival. This dog-fight will be a phenomenal spectacle. Knowing South African rugby, there will be plenty of blood, sweat, tears and beers.
At this stage of the season, the odds are heavily in favour of a Lions v Kings shoot out. The vanquished have launched a ‘2013 Lions Challenge Series’ in order to be battle-hardened for the decider.
Lions 2013 Challenge Series:
The Challenge Series sees the Lions play 16 matches against a variety of opposition. For example, they will host Montpellier, Samoa, Agen, the Sharks and the Stormers. They travel to North America to play three matches against invitational teams.
So far, the Lions have hammered Russia 51-13, shocked the Cheetahs 33-17 and narrowly lost 38-32 to the Blue Bulls. More ominously, the Southern Kings visited Ellis Park and went down 41-31.
A number of players such as Elton Jantijies, Lionel Mapoe and Franco van der Merwe, have been loaned to other Super 15 franchises. They will be available for the Challenge Series.
Cheeky Watson is Club President. Watson was one of the first white South Africans to participate in mixed-race rugby and did so during the oppressive cloak of apartheid. As a consequence, his family was threatened and the family home burnt down. He is charismatic, determined, brave and a man of great conviction.
Director of Rugby is Alan Solomons who has been assistant coach to the Springboks, coached the Stormers, Western Province and enjoyed a distinguished spell with Ulster.
Solomons appointed Matt Sexton as Head Coach. Sexton has coached several academy and age-group teams in New Zealand, but has never led a fully-professional first team. The coming season is sure to be a testing one for Sexton.
The squad is a work in progress. Cheeky’s son, Luke, is Captain and a player of formidable talent. Luke is a controversial character after his infamous comments about the Springbok emblem. Bath Rugby fans will tell you Watson is a rugby weapon and often appeared unstoppable. On occasions, opposition teams resorted to digging ditches and covering them with leaves, to stop his rumbustious charges from the base of the scrum.
Unfortunately, the rest of the squad does not appear as intimidating. They may prove many people wrong, but on paper, the Kings seem to lack depth.
Tomas Leonardi and Nicolas Vergallo are Argentinean internationals; Waylon Murray has 3 Springbok caps with a smattering of others possessing SA 7s and Emerging Springbok caps. The majority are young prospects or hard-working professionals.
Stardust is in short supply. Watson is a hand grenade surrounded by water pistols.
How will they do?
The Southern Kings are an experiment and one which neutrals will hope succeeds. The theory behind the Kings is sound and well-intentioned. Alas, I fear it is too soon for the Kings to be competitive and cannot see them avoiding the showdown with the Lions.
On current form, the Lions will win, but do not underestimate how much the Kings will improve with a season of Super Rugby under their belts.
The year Richard III was dug up, could also be the year the Kings are buried.
Western Force were downed 30-23 by Melbourne Rebels. The Kings celebrate their coronation at home to the Force this coming Saturday (Feb 23rd).