Warrior spirit

MARK KEOHANE, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says the Kings are making steady progress ahead of their Super Rugby debut in 2013.

Whatever the Kings produce between now and their introduction into Super Rugby in 2013 will have little meaning in determining the playing strength of South Africa’s newest Super Rugby franchise.

Those who judged the Kings’ ability to perform in the competition on the basis of the three warm-up matches against South African Super Rugby franchises missed the point of the exercise, because the Kings squad that plays Super Rugby in two years’ time will be very different to the one that represented the Kings in the warm-up matches against the Bulls, Cheetahs and Lions.

No measurement can be made. The Bulls sent their Vodacom Cup squad to play in Port Elizabeth and predictably got smashed by a home team needing to make a statement.

A week later the full-strength Cheetahs side did what you would expect them to do: they easily beat the Kings. Finally, the Lions Vodacom Cup side was a score too powerful for the Kings, who played as the regional Southern Kings but whose selection was limited to the Eastern Province Kings. There were no players from South Western Districts or Border and no players were drafted in for the matches.

‘It was a good measure of the advances made since the Currie Cup promotion-relegation matches of last season,’ Kings coach Alan Solomons tells SA Rugby magazine. ‘It showed what we will be up against in the Vodacom Cup if we are to be successful, but by and large it was a barometer of the appetite of people in Port Elizabeth for quality rugby and quality opposition. They certainly showed us they remain as hungry as they were a few months ago when 45 000 filled the stadium for the final match of the season against the Pumas. We weren’t good enough that night, but the people were spectacular in their support of the Kings.’

Playing the three matches in February was part of Saru’s commitment to the Kings, and while the matches were a late addition to the pre-tournament schedule the primary focus was one of awareness around the Kings and the push towards 2013 Super Rugby participation.

The Kings, still two years out from their Super Rugby baptism, have only started strengthening their squad in the past few months. Bath and former Stormers and Western Province captain Luke Watson has signed for three years but only starts playing for the Kings in the Currie Cup First Division in July. Two other high-profile European-based players will also sign for this year’s Currie Cup First Division campaign, but it will only be in 2012 when Solomons starts building the squad for the challenge of Super Rugby.

‘Players come off contract at the end of the year and as in all World Cup years, there is a lot of movement with players. It’s non-negotiable that we do well in the Vodacom Cup and that we win the First Division and gain promotion to the 2012 Currie Cup Premier Division, which will then be the preparation for the 2013 season. If the side can be competitive in the 2012 Currie Cup [assuming the goal of promotion is achieved], that will be half the battle won for the Super Rugby season as half the tournament is played as if it was a strength versus strength Currie Cup season,’ says Solomons.

‘I tend to look at where we were nine months ago as opposed to where we will be in nine months’ time. Nine months ago 2 000 people went to Boet Erasmus to watch Eastern Province, who took a whipping in the Vodacom Cup. We now play at the magnificent Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, we won the First Division in 2010, hosted a promotion-relegation match that attracted 45 000 supporters and totalled 60 000 in crowd support for the warm-up matches against three of South Africa’s Super Rugby squads.

‘We have made monumental strides in giving credibility to our Super Rugby participation and integrity to the process. There have been no handouts to Eastern Province. We have had to start from scratch and do it the hard way. But I wouldn’t want it any other way because the ethos we are developing is based on hard work and commitment. Nothing has come easy to this province and region and because of that I believe nothing will come easy to any team that plays us at any level.’

Solomons knows that 2013 is when the Kings will be measured, but he is also mindful that he still has to build depth in the provincial and regional squads that will form the pioneering regional one. He plans to do this, along with developing youngsters from within the region, in 2011 and 2012.

‘Our slogan is to keep them home and bring them home. There are something like 45 professional players in South Africa’s Super Rugby competition and Europe’s best leagues who were either born or schooled in the Eastern Cape and ideally we’d want those players to recognise that they have a future with the Kings.

‘We have also singled out high-profile players who we believe can be an asset to what we want to achieve in the next three to five years. We are looking at what the individual brings from a rugby and social perspective. We want players who believe in what this region means to South African rugby and we want players who want to be pioneers in creating something magical.’

The biggest off-season signing in 2011 is that of Watson, who was born in Port Elizabeth and matriculated from Grey High. Watson’s decision to return is like a steroid injection to the region, and Solomons acknowledges it was the sort of signing he had to make to show the intent of the region.

‘There isn’t a bigger name to have lured here when you put into context his history with the province and his achievements on a rugby field. He’s been playing brilliant rugby for Bath. He captains a team that includes the England captain Lewis Moody, and the players can’t speak highly enough of the contribution he’s made. When he plays, Bath seem to be a far more competitive outfit, and I’m expecting that kind of impact and inspiration when he arrives for this season’s Currie Cup,’ says Solomons.

‘I met with Luke in London late last year and was impressed with his vision for the region and his reasons for wanting to return to South Africa. He wants to make a difference, as a rugby player and as a human being, and the fact that he turned down lucrative offers from Bath and several of the richest clubs in Europe to make the Kings his home can’t be overstated.

‘We want the best players at the Kings and we won’t be looking for guys who want pension payouts. I want to develop players and coaches from within the region, but I’ve also been in the game long enough to know that youth alone doesn’t work. The best youngsters develop a lot quicker with old heads around them. They also don’t come much more inspirational than Watson and I’m excited by the prospect of combining his leadership with the likes of Mzwandile Stick.’

February in Port Elizabeth will be remembered more for the crowd support at the three pre-season hit outs than the 23-7 win against the Bulls.

‘That result was important for the region in that it showed progress from 2010,’ says Solomons. ‘But the biggest result was that 35 000 people pitched up to watch a rugby game in Port Elizabeth. It confirmed that there is a support base for the Kings and I don’t see how anyone can doubt the need for Super Rugby to be played in the Eastern Cape.’

EP Kings president Cheeky Watson is comfortable the rugby side of the business is in the right hands, which means he can chase the sponsorships and investments needed to put the Kings on par with the established South African Super Rugby regions.

‘Solly has been brilliant for the region and he has a passion for the Eastern Cape that you can’t buy. He was schooled here, understands the dynamic and believes in the region as much as he does the rugby. It’s difficult to put into context just how much he has done in the past nine months. It is colossal,’ says Watson.

‘It also means the EP Kings CEO Anele Pamba and I can seek out investors and sell the Kings to potential sponsors. We appreciate that the sports sponsorship market is saturated and is a difficult one, but the Kings are not just another sports team on the South African landscape.

‘The Kings, as I have consistently said, can become bigger than any side in what they represent for a unified South Africa. The region is so rich in culture and tradition among blacks, coloureds and whites, and if the best qualities of the respective cultures are combined you will have one helluva warrior rugby culture. But the squad [as a Super Rugby entity] has to start on an equal footing when it comes to financial investment in order to be able to beat the other South African regional squads.

‘Solly has to be working with an equal budget. Emotion can only get you so far and I know that good intention alone won’t be enough in 2013. The Kings need cash and investors who believe that sport makes a difference. In Port Elizabeth we have a rugby team whose achievements will change the lives of South Africans and make them believe that anything is possible in this great country of ours.’

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

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