Kings on the rise

GARETH DUNCAN says the Kings should become a stronger entity than the Cheetahs, no matter what happens in the upcoming Currie Cup promotion-relegation play-offs.

The Free State Cheetahs are expected to beat the EP Kings in the Currie Cup promotion-relegation battle over the next fortnight.

Despite the Kings’ unbeaten run to the First Division title and the Cheetahs’ current injury crisis (a loss of 13 first-choice players, including flyhalf Johan Goosen, flank Heinrich Brussow and prop Coenie Oosthuizen), the Bloemfontein union is still considered favourites as they boast more players with experience of playing at higher levels.

I think the Kings will provide a challenge against a weakened Free State outfit. But I admit that domestic promotion would be a surprise, especially when you consider the fact that the current Kings side isn’t much stronger than the team that lost to the Pumas in the 2010 play-offs.

But look beyond this result and you’ll notice that the Southern Kings are making progress; to the extent where they are likely to become a more competitive team than the Cheetahs as soon as next season.

While the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls will be Super Rugby title contenders in 2013, the Cheetahs and Kings will battle in the wooden spoon race.

It’s something both franchises will want to avoid as the last-placed team is expected to face the Lions in the first South African Super Rugby promotion-relegation play-offs. I say expected because this format could still change if voted against at the next Saru Exco meeting; but that’s another story.

Many pundits expect the Kings to struggle because of the trend set by other tournament debutants. The Western Force and Melbourne Rebels have both finished last in their first campaigns in 2006 and 2011 respectively.

However, both Australian teams struggled because they were established from scratch. The Kings have a platform to work from in the EP Kings, Border and SWD.

They have a quality mentor in director of rugby Alan Solomons. He’s clearly had a positive effect on the EP Kings, who have only lost 10 out of 57 games in all domestic competitions since his arrival in June 2010. That’s a winning percentage of 82.4%.

The Kings team that will play in Super Rugby will also be much stronger than the side that has featured on the domestic scene over the last two seasons. They have signed the likes of centre Andries Strauss, lock Steven Sykes, flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis and hooker Bandise Maku, and have four internationals in wing Paul Perez, prop Clint Newland, scrumhalf Nicolas Vergallo and utility back Hadleigh Parkes. More reinforcements will arrive during the build-up to the 2013 campaign.

The only complication is that the Kings will only be allowed two of those foreigners in their final squad that they declare to Saru. The other two will be allowed in the wider squads and will be able to be called up in case of injury. There’s also a chance that Saru might accommodate the Kings, who are still requesting that the restrictions be lifted.

The Cheetahs haven’t impressed in Super Rugby since their readmission in 2006. They have won 27 out of 84 games (a winning percentage of just 32%) during this period and their highest finish has been 10th place.

They have lost key players since this year’s Super Rugby campaign in No 8 Ashley Johnson (London Wasps, England), prop WP Nel (Edinburgh, Scotland) and lock George Earle (Scarlets, Wales). The departures of flyhalf Sias Ebersohn (Western Force), lock Izak van der Westhuizen (Edinbugh), prop Marcel van der Merwe (Bulls) and Strauss at the end of the year will also cost the squad depth.

In reply, the Cheetahs have only signed on props Caylib Oosthuizen (Lions) and Rossouw de Klerk (Bulls), centre Johann Sadie (Bulls) and flyhalf Elgar Watts (Boland). Griquas will provide some depth, but the Cheetahs won’t be able to afford injuries to key players.

If you look a bit deeper, you’d see the Free State and EP junior teams are also experiencing contrasting fortunes.

This season, the Free State U21s only won four out 12 league games. Their U19s only won three of their 12 fixtures.

The EP U21s and U19s topped their respective logs in the B Divisions, with the former team securing the provincial title. They will compete for promotion to the A Division.

Transformation is also evident in EP’s junior teams, which bodes well for the future. The Southern Kings will also be able to tap into the top black talent in SWD and Border’s junior structures. However, Super Rugby participation will be vital in retaining these young players.

While many in the South African rugby fraternity are worried about the Lions, it looks like the Cheetahs are also struggling. And at all levels too.

These are still early days, but a power change has already begun by the looks of it. The Kings are on the rise, while the Cheetahs are headed in another direction.

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