EP’s fresh start

EP Kings director of rugby Alan Solomons talks to GRANT BALL about transformation, keeping players in the province, and getting ready for Super Rugby.

What has the move from Ireland to Port Elizabeth been like?
I’ve found myself coming full circle. I was born in Uitenhage and went to school at Grey PE. There’s a bunch of good people at EP, from the CEO Anele Pamba to president Cheeky Watson. Good people make a huge difference in a move like this. I still do the odd bit of consulting for the IRB, but it’s not a big thing.

How difficult was it luring back players who were earning big salaries overseas?
That’s the fantastic thing about guys like Darron Nell and Rory Duncan. They appreciate what we’re doing here. They want to be here at the start of the journey and they know there’s light at the end of the tunnel. For Darron, I think the whole experience of playing in a British & Irish Lions game made a big difference to him. He was here for 10 days for that game, and he could see he was a part of something good. In that regard it wasn’t difficult getting back guys who are from the region. In terms of general recruitment, we really need a Super Rugby franchise, because other good players with no previous links to the area want to play at that level. But that will be resolved, and we’ve been guaranteed Super Rugby entry in 2013 by Saru. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve been given unequivocal backing from the top. It’s got to happen now.

What’s your response to people who say the Kings’ Super Rugby inclusion won’t be a boost for transformation?
Against Boland we had four players of colour in the starting team, but Mpho Mbiyozo was still injured and for the first time this season, less than a third of the side was black. But that’s not what this team’s about. There’s no numbers game and everyone is picked on merit. There’s a relaxed atmosphere at training and guys speak English, Afrikaans and Xhosa. The black guys feel at home more than they do anywhere else. I’ve selected a leadership group of six players, and of those, only De Wet Barry isn’t from the Eastern Cape. We’ve also got Tiger Mangweni, Mzwandile Stick, Darron, Rory, and Mpho. De Wet’s committed himself to the region, proof of which is him learning to speak Xhosa. When we played the Valke the following week, we had six players of colour in the starting team and two on the bench. That isn’t an issue for us, and it shouldn’t be for the pessimists.

Will you be able to get black players to return to the Eastern Cape?
I’d love it if every black player who’s been developed in this region came back, because they get lost at some of the other unions. Without a Super Rugby franchise in the Eastern Cape they’ve had no aspirational pathway. It’s going to be tough, but we’ve started a process. You can see from all the players’ body language how happy they are to be back home. My motto is to bring them home and keep them home. They want to be part of something special.

How do you think Mbiyozo will make the transition from sevens back to the 15-a-side game?
I coached Mpho at UCT [University of Cape Town] in 2005 when they were part of a relegation scrap, and he was exceptional. I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t got any opportunities with WP and the Stormers. We saw when he played for the Kings against the Lions last year – he hadn’t played 15s for a while and he was adjudged Man of the Match. I don’t think he’ll battle with the adjustment. He’ll be back by the end of August after keyhole surgery on his shoulder which he injured while playing sevens.

What’s been the key to EP’s best Currie Cup campaign in years [they are top of the First Division log]?
It’s difficult to comment on the past few years as I wasn’t here, but hard work has been vital. Everyone here has been prepared to do it – from the administration, to the coaching staff, to the players. We’ve tried new things with the players, and they’ve been happy to embrace change. We made things difficult for ourselves against the Griffons but got  the result, and the win against Boland away from home was a big victory for us. Winning breeds confidence.

What was the thinking behind bringing backline coach David Maidza from the Border Bulldogs?
David worked with us against the Lions and I was very impressed. When we approached him, he could see a bright future. He’s a first-class coach and an outstanding guy. He’s looking to develop himself as a coach and we want to give him opportunities to travel. We’ve made a tentative approach to the Western Force for him to go there for two or three weeks in December to work with Richard Graham, who will be their coach once John Mitchell leaves. Rich is a brilliant skills and backs coach, and all coaches should want to up-skill themselves, which is what David wants to do. He is highly intelligent, articulate and he’s got a good manner with the players.

Why did EP change its name to the EP Kings this season?
Cheeky and Anele were behind the thinking and know more about the reasoning, but I think it’s great. Everything about the team is new; we’re moving into the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on 1 September, and wanted a fresh start. The Mighty Elephants belonged to the Boet Erasmus and things are changing with the Kings. This is a new beginning.

How do you plan to incorporate Border and SWD into the Kings franchise?
I don’t see it as a problem. When I coached the Stormers, we easily negotiated bringing in Boland and SWD. You always have an anchor union, which EP are here, and it makes sense as PE is the biggest city [compared to George and East London] and we have the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. With the Stormers, we had camps in George so that SWD felt part of the franchise, and we also played warm-ups against Boland and SWD.

How does your job as director of rugby branch into other areas?
We’re doing our best with the professional team, but it’s also about under-pinning that with high-performance teams. We’ve started working with the schools, age-group sides and universities in the region, which never happened in the past as there essentially hasn’t been any professional rugby here, and therefore none of the professional structures. We’re also taking a road trip to the top 27 schools in the region with guys like [former Bok centre] Danie Gerber and [ex-Bok prop] Robbie Kempson.

How long will it take to stop the excessive loss of players to other unions?
It will take two or three years to arrest the haemorrhaging. We’ve made inroads already and we’ll make academy signings this year. It’s all part of a process.

Some argue that even though the Cheetahs have a Super Rugby franchise they still loseplayers. Why will the Kings be any different?
It’s very simple. The Cheetahs lose players every year because for some or other reason they don’t perform at Super Rugby level. They aren’t as wealthy as the other unions and their players get poached, and therefore they’re unable to compete. But we’ll have the financial wherewithal that the Cheetahs don’t have and we’ll make a mark in Super Rugby. The consequence is that the players will stay.

How important is it to gain promotion to the Currie Cup Premier Division next season?
That’s the ideal scenario. Like everyone in the First Division, we’re looking to move up. We want to play a higher level of rugby. If we play in the Currie Cup Premier Division in 2011 it will facilitate our entry into Super Rugby two years later. But we’ve only played a few games and aren’t even halfway through the season, so it’s early days. Our ambition is to get to the Premier Division. At times we might go sideways or a little backwards, but ultimately we’re moving forward. People in the region have seen what’s happening and interest is rising. We must also remember that we had the most representative rugby crowd for the Kings’ match against the Lions last year, which shows the interest and hunger for sport across all racial groups. Although not every South African has links with the Eastern Cape, we should all be working together to support the union, not criticise it.

Is EP going to set up a rugby academy?
Our ideal model is to have players coming from high school to the academy while studying at varsity in PE, playing for EP U19, and also NMMU [Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University] in the Varsity Cup and the local league. NMMU will model themselves on our structures, and our academy players will be based at the stadium, along with all the senior players. The university and academy will play a central role in the development of the franchise.

How worrying is NMMU’s last-place position in the Varsity Cup?
We’ve got to tackle the problem of NMMU. We had our first meeting with their staff at the start of the season and have rekindled our involvement with them. We want them to be a success, not like the recent past. We’re determined to make them powerful, which they have to be for the sake of the province. NMMU have to be a pathway for players to the senior team; they must have the same approach as the professional side.

– This article first appeared in the September issue of SA Rugby magazine

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