Positivity surrounds South African duo's migration to the north
It's just as well that Deon Davids is a stoic, pragmatic man. The coach of the Kings has been able to do no more than look on as his Super Rugby squad has been decimated before his eyes. More than 20 players have moved off in recent weeks, among them flyhalf Lionel Cronje (Japan), prolific wing Makazole Mapimpi (Free State) and Munster-bound Chris Cloete, who now plays for the Pumas.
Even assistant coach Vuyo Zangqa has taken a new job, in Germany of all places. "What can you do?" the former Boland number eight asks philosophically. "It's a bit discouraging, but I've been in this position before. You get a bit tired of it, but you do the best you can."
With a sword having hung over the Kings all season in anticipation of a chop from Super Rugby - and it dropped - players actively sought out other opportunities. Against this backdrop, an elegant saving grace came in the form of the Guinness Pro12 becoming the Guinness Pro14. Welcome the Cheetahs and the Kings
Pro14 participation offers a vital lifeline for SA rugby, particularly in the case of the Kings who have a strong political dimension. Based in the Eastern Cape, the traditional heartland of black rugby, the Kings had to be sustained at almost any cost. Shutting them down would have been suicide for a game that constantly has to toe the line amid the relentless machinations of South Africa's political heavies.
Davids' job in recent weeks has thus been to scratch around for players. "I have to be very creative and thoughtful," he says.
With every player of significance signed up either in SA or overseas, the task is stretching him in ways he never believed possible.
He's knocked on the doors of other teams and even contacted players who have never been contracted. Whoever runs out for the first match, against the Scarlets next Saturday, it will be a Kings team high on hope but low on star quality.
Davids has been down this road before. He built the Kings from scratch and although they struggled at the start, earlier this year they bloodied a couple of major noses, beating the Waratahs in Sydney and the Bulls in Pretoria while playing a fast, fluid game. They developed a vibrant culture, although Davids concedes it's all but gone now.
The Cheetahs are a different beast. Despite Bloemfontein being a small provincial city dominated by a farming economy, it has for the past two decades been the most prolific nursery of local rugby talent. This is chiefly the doing of Grey College, a remarkable school that consistently churns out high-quality players who inevitably get snapped up by other provinces. Every year the Cheetahs are heavily raided and yet they continue to produce outstanding players.
They are especially pleased about moving north. They seldom had a happy time of it in Super Rugby and for a while were blended into the Lions team, a mish-mash that never stood a chance.
The arduous travel demands and player attrition meant they were never more than middle-of-the-roaders. The switch to Europe seems to have energised the franchise, chief executive Harold Verster adamant that "we're in it to win it".
Remarkably, the Cheetahs will turn out two teams in the coming months: one in each of Pro14 and Currie Cup, the domestic provincial competition. The belated deal meant there would be a clash of fixtures, although rugby bosses have promised to work this out for next season.
Franco Smith, who doubles as the Cheetahs director of rugby and Springbok assistant coach, has played in Europe and believes the new deal will benefit the national team.
"Test match rugby is similar to what is happening up north - less opportunity and less space because of the conditions," said the former flyhalf. "A lot of us grew up with a dry ball and a height above sea level, so this is different. But now where the ball doesn't travel that far and it's much colder, it's not possible to move the ball around as much. It's a type of mindset and skill that we are going to have to develop. It will be an important step in completing the development of players in South Africa."
The Cheetahs are the reigning Currie Cup champions and will be coached by former lock Rory Duncan. Quite how they will juggle the demands of two competitions simultaneously is still to be thrashed out, but Cheetahs teams are never anything less than exciting and ambitious. They traditionally score plenty of tries, and leak plenty too. Their adventurous spirit might yet be their undoing in Europe, they will, however, play hard and fast at home where the field at Free State Stadium demands a running game.
For all the difficulties associated with re-jigging plans and calendars, broad consensus is hugely positive in South Africa. There's a freshness and vitality about the new challenge and supporters are curious about how SA teams will stack up in an entirely new competition. Indeed, speculation abounds that this is merely the first step in a bigger shift to the north given the friendly time zones, the commercial potential and the warmer embrace of European rugby bosses.
Sunday Indo Sport