The Kings’ road to 2013

Alan Solomons says the Southern Kings have the necessary plans in place that will make them competitive in Super Rugby next year.

There have been mixed reactions following the confirmation of the Kings’ admission to Super Rugby for 2013. The Eastern Cape franchise has been given a free ride into the tournament, despite Saru not being sure of how they will be accommodated along with the country’s five other teams: the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers, Cheetahs and Lions. While Saru’s proposal of entering six franchises next year will be formally discussed with Sanzar in the near future (despite CEO Greg Peters stating it will be unlikely), a final decision on how all six franchises will be managed will only be made at the union’s annual general meeting in March.

So the only certainty at this stage is that the Kings are the only South African franchise that is guaranteed to play Super Rugby next season. With that, the question arises: Will they be competitive?

The recent track record of promoted franchises isn’t a positive one. Australia’s Western Force (2006) and the Melbourne Rebels (2011) both finished bottom of the table in their debut campaigns. The Cheetahs and Lions have also struggled to finish in the top half of the log since the separation of the Cats six years ago. The EP Kings’ 43-12 loss to Boland in last year’s Currie Cup First Division final also increased debate about their ability to perform at higher levels, as the union will form the greater part of the final Southern Kings squad.

However, head coach Solomons believes the Southern Kings are on track to do well next year.

‘We were delighted with the news that we will play Super Rugby in 2013. It’s a promise that started back in June 2010, when I first joined the union,’ Solomons told keo.co.za.

‘The key thing is that we have our structures in place and we have a specific recruitment policy that we’ll follow. There are players in our region [EP, SWD and Border] who we are observing this year – all those players are getting opportunities during our warm-up games against the other five South African franchises. Thereafter, we’ll analyse who will be able to make the step up. There also plenty of South Africans abroad, especially in Europe. Most of those guys left because they couldn’t get Super Rugby contracts, but now we can offer them that opportunity. There are also players in South Africa who will be free agents at the end of the season, so we’ll have a look at them too.

‘Yes, the Force and Rebels struggled,’ Solomons continued, ‘but that’s because Australia doesn’t have the player base for five franchises as their league and Aussie rules codes are also popular. In South Africa, we don’t have that problem. We have the player base for six franchises.’

Solomons added that the current criticism of the Southern Kings is premature.

‘Yes, last year’s First Division final was a disappointing result. At the time, we never complained and congratulated Boland. But the truth is, we had nine first-choice players out injured – including four of our leaders. Luke Watson, Rory Duncan, Darron Nell, Marcello Sampson, Boetie Britz, De Wet Barry, Paul Perez, Siyanda Grey and Wayne Stevens all missed the game. Four players who started in our tight five struggled with niggles while SP Marais wasn’t 100% fit.

‘People who are criticising us because of that result need to look at our progress in a different perspective. You have to look at the whole picture. When [president] Cheeky Watson took over in 2008, EP rugby was in a disastrous state and he did a fantastic job in restoring some structure. Since I took over in 2010, we’ve played 37 games and won 30. That’s a winning average of 81%. Those matches were played in four tournaments – and we won two of them [the 2010 Currie Cup First Division and Nations Cup, where they beat Portugal and World Cup participants Georgia and Romania]. You can’t even count the Vodacom Cup, as we were deducted points when we would’ve qualified for the play-offs. We’ve come along way and we will be ready in 2013.’

Another topic of concern is whether transformation will be a priority. The EP region is known for it’s raw black talent, but what focus will be put on the development of black players during this important stage of Super Rugby preparation?

‘When it comes to Super Rugby participation, we have to work from the top down because the Eastern Cape hasn’t played Super Rugby in the professional era. Transformation is a priority, and we will focus on it from the bottom up,’ said Solomons. ‘The union has produced many black players over the years, like the Ndungane twins, Lwazi Mvovo and Bandise Maku, but we’ve lost them to the other Super Rugby franchises. We are doing the best we can to bring those players back home, like we have done with Tiger Mangweni, Mzwandile Stick, Jongi Nokwe and Mpho Mbiyozo.

‘But in the process, we launched our academy last year and plan to produce our own players. We are already contracting juniors for 2012, and five of them are players of colour. This will be a process and we have to be patient.’

By Gareth Duncan