Rugby: Southern Kings a long way from Super 15 crown

By Mike Greenaway

The chances of the Kings featuring in a promotion-relegation match later this year are outstanding simply because they are not yet ready to play at this level even if it does mean promoting Eastern Cape black rugby and players

Kiwi coach Matt Sexton will have a tough task getting the Southern Kings up to speed in Super Rugby.  Photo / Star
Kiwi coach Matt Sexton will have a tough task getting the Southern Kings up to speed in Super Rugby. Photo / Star

The men in suits at the South African Rugby Union are going to be sweating over the next three months as their newly-born minnow, the Southern Kings, head into the deep waters of Super Rugby.

Last weekend, the Port Elizabeth-based franchise visited the relegated Lions in an ironic fixture given that the Johannesburg team were axed to make way for the Kings in a controversial boardroom decision, and had 40 points put past them, although the Kings' Kiwi coach Matt Sexton will argue that he took the fizz out of the grudge game by resting frontline players.

If that is the case, it showed the Kings have questionable depth given the Lions are a shadow of their competitive former selves because many leading players have been drafted to the Super Rugby franchises.

The birth of the Kings follows a gestation period going back almost a decade as Saru fidgeted and waffled about how they were going to revive rugby in the Eastern Cape region where black rugby has a stronghold, and has long been the attention of a South African government that has racial transformation at the top of its sporting agenda.

Finally, rugby's governing body was forced into a corner and they had to make a decision on how to make six franchises go into five (SA's Super Rugby representation). It was eventually ruled that the team that finished lowest in the 2012 tournament, the Lions, had to drop out and there is to be an annual promotion-relegation match to determine who will be South Africa's "fifth" team in Super Rugby. The chances of the Kings featuring in a promotion-relegation match later this year are outstanding. It is notable that the Force and Rebels finished last when they made their 2006 and 2011 respectively.

The only way the Kings will feature in 2013 is if Sanzar act on Saru's plaintive pleas for expansion.

Nobody has anything against the Kings - it is a good idea to foster rugby in their region, which is a breeding ground of black talent - but the issue is that they are not ready. It is likely they are going to get some big hidings and may the rugby gods have mercy on their souls when they visit the likes of the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Brumbies in March.

The Kings have a good infrastructure in place at the magnificent Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, which was built for the 2010 soccer World Cup, and have a wily director of rugby in Alan Solomons while Sexton is a promising coach. They have an inspirational captain in the charismatic Luke Watson but what they don't have is big name players or the experience to survive in the ruthless world of Super Rugby.

And they can expect no mercy from their South African colleagues, who will regard them as a bonus-point win. After hosting the Force in their first game, the Sharks come to town and last year's beaten finalists are looking better than ever.

They have kept intact their team from last year and have brought back crowd favourites in Ryan Kankowski, who was in Japan, Butch James (the Lions) and Francois Steyn (Racing Metro). The latter will captain the side in the absence of regular captain Keegan Daniel who crocked knee ligaments in a warm-up game.

The Sharks have an exceptional coach in another Kiwi, John Plumtree, and his old mate John Mitchell would have been the third New Zealander in charge of a leading team had he not been sacked by the Lions last year. Incidentally, he still lives in Johannesburg and does TV work.

The team the Sharks dramatically beat in the semifinal last year, the Stormers, will again be among the top finishers but for them to go further than last year they must hone their attacking edge. Last season, the Cape side had the best defensive record but at the same time they battled to score tries. The Stormers also have consistency in their squad and have added new young Springboks Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute and Pat Cilliers (all from the Lions). In 2012, the Capetonians discovered the brilliant 20-year-old lock Eben Etzebeth, and he again features in a highly physical pack.

Sadly, Springbok flanker Schalk Burger remains on the injury list and it is now almost a year since he first injured his knee. He has not played in the interim.

Juan Smith, the former Cheetahs captain who played many a test in the Bok loose trio with Burger, has had similar misfortune with an Achilles tendon injury and after two warm-up games the injury flared up again and he has announced his retirement, a blow for both the Cheetahs and the Boks.

Otherwise the Bloemfontein side is looking pretty good and will be better for the maturing of youngsters such as Springbok first five-eighths Johann Goosen, popular prop Coenie Oosthuizen and Bok openside Heinrich Brussow. The Cheetahs are perennial underachievers but this year have better depth.

The Bulls were supposed to fall apart in 2012 following the retirement of Bok greats in Victor Matfied, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and Danie Rossouw and the migration of their management team to Heyneke's Meyer's Springboks, but they surprised many to finish fifth.

There is no reason to believe they cannot build on last season's performances.

Matfield is also back with the team as forwards coach, and they have recruited exciting young talent from the Lions in prop CJ Stander, wing Lionel Mapoe and lock Paul Willemse.

Greenaway's predicted conference finish

Sharks 1st, Stormers 2nd, Bulls 3rd, Cheetahs 4th, Kings 5th.

- NZ Herald

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