EP Kings have Solly to thank

MARK KEOHANE, in his weekly Business Day column, says Alan Solomons has maximised his resources in Port Elizabeth.

It is no exaggeration to emphasise the importance of the Eastern Province Kings beating the Pumas and playing in next year’s Currie Cup Premier Division. It is also no exaggeration to emphasise the contribution of Kings director of rugby and head coach Alan Solomons in making this all possible.

Solomons, in a season, has done what the politicians and the rugby administrators have been speaking about for the past five years, which is to turn Eastern Province into a rugby region once again.

There were no pre-season promises from Solomons that in 2011 Eastern Province would again be among the top eight premier domestic sides in South Africa. There was no handout from South African rugby in the form of a restructured Currie Cup competition that accommodated the Eastern Cape by way of Eastern Province. There was no treasure chest, filled with cash to buy the best players and buy a winning culture.

All Solomons enjoyed, by way of luxury, was his passion, that of provincial president Cheeky Watson and the warrior spirit of De Wet Barry to lead a bunch of wannabes and could have beens.

Solomons, like he did when he was at UCT, Western Province and Ulster, relied on passion and a work ethic that has never failed and never ceased to amaze those around him.

Many class players have promised Solomons they will sign with the Kings when the side’s Super Rugby participation is guaranteed, which is supposedly 2013, but understandably none were prepared to sign for a team in the First Division and more familiar with a wooden spoon than the silver spoon.

Eastern Province rugby has been a mess for some time. Administratively it has been a jungle that has attracted every sort. Watson has restored integrity to the boardroom in the province but all that restores respect to a team is consistently positive results.

Not only did Solomons have to battle cynicism and the stench of mediocrity, but he had to build a winning culture with players who will be lucky to make it to Super Rugby because their talent doesn’t match their enthusiasm.

The result has been as remarkable as the 36-all away draw to the Pumas in the first of two promotion-relegation matches; the very same Pumas who went to Coca Cola Park (Ellis Park to the traditionalists) a fortnight ago and whipped John Mitchell’s hyped Lions.

Mitchell has rightly been praised for finding the occasional roar in the Lions this year, but seven wins from 14 is a telling statistic that demands acknowledgement and therefore perspective.

Solomons’ effort also demands perspective and the kind of acknowledgement that has always been denied him in South African rugby.

Solomons is not popular among South African rugby administrators because he is intelligent, hard working and has never suffered a fool. When involved with Western Province and the Springboks (as Nick Mallett’s assistant in 1997 and 1998) he encountered many fools and never excused their incompetence. He was vocal in his criticism and refused to play the political game of politeness.

In Watson he has found an ally and comfort that having an opinion is a good thing and exercising one’s right to think is even better. He has a provincial president who enjoys an intelligent coach and promotes the value of debate.

Solomons challenges any stereotype and his urgency and intensity scares more people than it seduces, but he has an ability to maximise any resource and the one thing he has always had is loyalty from players.

Barry, a WP and Solomons favourite 10 years ago, is an example of this loyalty, but those players who are close to Solomons will also tell you that they know they have Solomons’ loyalty, which is why he so often gets a return on his player investments.

Solomons is a sporting cliche because so much of what he does is based on the principle that a close team is a successful one – and there’s nothing wrong with sporting cliche that make us smile.

Eastern Province rugby is a point away from reaching the point from which there should never be a return to the sort of mediocrity Solomons inherited.

Never has a play-off promotion match mattered so much to South African rugby because an EP victory will be so much more than a win on the rugby field.

And for that Alan Solomons, Cheeky Watson and De Wet Barry can never be thanked enough.

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