Friday 22 November 2019

Kings playing catch-up in new adventure as Leinster await in South Africa

Stephan Coetzee, Masixole Banda and Luvuyo Pupuma of Southern Kings conduct their own post-mortem after last week’s defeat to Connacht. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Stephan Coetzee, Masixole Banda and Luvuyo Pupuma of Southern Kings conduct their own post-mortem after last week’s defeat to Connacht. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

As soon as they entered the Guinness PRO14, the Southern Kings went to the top of the stadium charts with the best the championship has to offer.

Their mission in the medium term is to find a team worthy of the glistening 46,000-capacity Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and one that will attract enough of interest in this foreign competition to attract bums onto its seats.

A crowd of between 7-10,000 is expected tomorrow when Leinster become the first away side to visit and it is possibly just as well that they've arrived without most of their biggest names.

When you're trying to get something new off the ground, a hammering would serve nobody well at all. Even without the coterie of front-line talent who have remained in or returned to Dublin this week, the Irish province should prove too strong for a team still finding their feet after being disbanded earlier this year.

Southern Kings head coach Deon Davids. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Southern Kings head coach Deon Davids. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Head coach Deon Davids (below) had put together a competitive outfit for this season's Super Rugby campaign, one who blended an attacking style with the capacity to get results and the locals responded.

By the time he found out he'd have the chance to do the same again for the PRO14, most of his players had found new contracts elsewhere.

Just six of that side remain on the books and the coach is rebuilding from scratch.

In their first three games, they were scheduled to face three of the last four champions of this competition and they'll breathe a big sigh of relief when Zebre arrive in Port Elizabeth next week.

They are discovering the vagaries of northern hemisphere travel, just as Leinster are learning about the visa waiver system in operation.

Getting from Llanelli to Galway presents its own challenges. Italy requires a visa, a visa requires a return flight to Johannesburg and a day at the embassy for each player; challenges are presenting themselves all the time.

While Leinster have been put off their stride by disrupted preparation, the Kings have also been making their way back from Europe and yesterday's training session was their only one of the week.

So, it is little surprise that the team are struggling to adapt to their new life in the PRO14 and while their results are not as bad as a Cheetahs side who have far fewer excuses, they are bad all the same.

"I think people have got to be realistic in their approach, we certainly are. We have to be, otherwise we'll just frustrate ourselves," Kings chief operating officer Charl Crous told the Irish Independent.

"We had a really good Super Rugby campaign, unfortunately we lost the bulk of our players for various reasons - the main one being this competition was only announced when most of those players had signed their contracts elsewhere.

"So, people have to be patient because this is a bit of a project, a work in progress. We'll definitely improve, we'll still improve within this season and there will be a few a few victories along the way - I'm certain of that.

"This team only had four proper practices before it played its first game and you have to be realistic. We've also had a number of injuries now, depth is a bit of a concern.

"But in year two, three; this team will be completely different and we'd like to compete for play-offs."

Despite a strong schools system and player base, the Kings have always lived on the edge of the Super Rugby world. East of Cape Town and south of Durban, the region is one of the poorest regions in the country but is also strategically important for demographic reasons and saving the professional outlet was an imperative for South African rugby.

"It's critical for us to have a top-tier high-performance system and professional rugby in order to ensure that we can maximise the grassroots potential that we have here, that big base that we've got and then bring those diamonds through ourselves and retain them within this province," Croux explained.

"We've got the benefit of having that big base that we can work from and from a business point of view it's better to produce your own than buy them from elsewhere.

"From a player retention point of view and also within the wider SA Rugby landscape, the biggest and broadest talent pool of black rugby players is from this province and with our imperatives and objectives from a SA Rugby point of view as a whole with regards to transformation and bringing players through the system; this is a key pillar for those objectives.

"Retaining professional rugby through the Guinness PRO14 was the only way that we could do that.

"This is a place where rugby is played above football - whereas in the majority of the country football takes precedence for our black population, so that's why this is such a critical geographical area for South African rugby."

As a destination, Port Elizabeth has huge charm and its location at the other end of the Garden Route from Cape Town should make it a desirable spot for fans to visit once they get a bit of notice first, particularly with the highly favourable exchange rates.

So there is potential in the Windy City to grow into this tournament, but that potential is likely to be unfulfilled for a little while yet as they catch up on themselves on the field after their hasty entrance.


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