Kings deserve Super Rugby

MARK KEOHANE, writing in Business Day Sport Monthly, says the Eastern Cape franchise doesn’t need to justify its place in next year’s competition.

It never ceases to amaze me how often the South African Rugby Union gets it wrong. What should have been a monumental announcement – that the Kings would play in Super Rugby from 2013 – turned into a debate of uncertainty as to whether or not South Africa would lose a franchise or convince New Zealand and Australia to accommodate a sixth South African team.

The wizards at Saru once again want it both ways.

The Kings deserve to be in Super Rugby, purely by virtue of promises made to the South African government when bidding to host the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups. This time there was no escape, but instead of fronting the situation and making a decision on who falls out, the clever guys went cap in hand to Australia and New Zealand pleading for the expansion of the tournament.

The layman argument that the Kings don’t deserve to be in the competition is flawed on so many levels, as well as being an incredibly ignorant view.

The Kings are as deserving as any team and the rugby public forgets that the Lions and Cheetahs hardly won for 10 years and when the two sides combined as the Cats the results were as diabolical. The Kings can’t be a greater embarrassment than the 17 successive Lions defeats, as just one statistic.

The rugby argument aside, the decision to accommodate the region is an ethical one because a promise was made.

To recap for those suffering amnesia, Saru only stood a chance of hosting the 2011 World Cup if the government gave a financial guarantee and an endorsement. It was at a time when the sports ministry was fed up with the lack of transformation and continued neglect of rugby in the Eastern Cape.

Saru’s representatives promised a new beginning for the region and invested nearly R12-million in forming the Southern Spears, arranging friendly matches and promoting the region’s entry into Super Rugby in 2011. Then South Africa botched the bid, New Zealand struck a deal with Ireland and the rugby authorities backtracked on their enthusiasm for the region.

There was apparently too much division between Border, Eastern Province and South Western Districts. There was misadministration, claims of corruption and the convenient decision was that there was no way Saru could invest further in an Eastern Cape Super Rugby region. Saru then paid nearly R10-million to close down the region.

Very little happened between World Cup bids and when word was that South Africa was a guarantee to host 2015, again the emotional carrot of the Eastern Cape was dangled. Again it fell flat when South Africa cocked up in Dublin.

Only this time things were changing in the Eastern Cape. Cheeky Watson had been elected president and he declared that they would get their house in order and would be competitive in 2013.

He signed former Stormers and Ulster coach Alan Solomons and EP went from being the bunny boys to Currie Cup First Division champions in 2010 and runners-up in 2011. Support for the promotion-relegation match exceeded 40 000 and there were very good crowds for pre-season friendlies against the existing Super Rugby franchises.

The Kings, playing without a team sponsor, hammered the Bulls in a 2011 warm-up but the win was dismissed as the Bulls fielded an inexperienced side. Either way the Kings would be damned.

But in Watson and Solomons they have two rugby men who won’t give up and are prepared to put in the hours. The Kings became competitive with a limited squad because without Saru confirming their entry into the competition in 2013 it was impossible to attract top players.

The aim, with moderate talent, was to get the interest and the public responded. When EP hosted a Springbok Test against the All Blacks in 2011 the match was a sellout.

The region is ready to play and those who use the team’s performances in the First Division as a yardstick miss the point that the bulk of the 2013 squad will be imported from other regions and overseas. Transformation will be a big part of the Kings, but what will make them a success story is if they win and not how many black players start each match.

Solomons initiated a campaign of keeping the players home and bringing them home, given there were more than 40 players born and schooled in the Eastern Cape playing elsewhere.

The argument that the Kings had to earn the right through the Currie Cup has no merit. The need to have the Eastern Cape as a stronghold and growth point in South African rugby takes priority.

It was a similar situation to when the Natal Rugby Union couldn’t win a place in the six-team Currie Cup A division in the amateur era. A compromise between Natal and the national governing body was to expand the Currie Cup to eight teams and accommodate the Banana Boys, as they were then called.

Critics of the Kings’ entry have short memories. Natal built and bought a potent team and within a decade became the leading province in South Africa. With the right people, finance and commitment anything is possible.

Saru should have announced officially two years ago that the Kings would play in 2013, but they held back in the hope of an expanded competition. In the end Sanzar forced a decision out of them.

The Kings are there and that should not be a debate. A promise has finally been honoured and the embarrassment is in how long it took Saru’s administration to confirm it all … not in what the Kings will produce in the competition.

– This article appears in the March issue of Business Day Sport Monthly, which is on sale now at selected outlets. The April issue will be distributed FREE with Business Day newspaper on Friday, 23 March.