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Kings have demonstrated their potential

The sudden popularity of the Southern Kings after their unexpected run of victories in Vodacom Super Rugby has been a heart-warming challenge to that old theory that if you give a dog a bad name it will keep it.

The Eastern Cape team has become the flavour of the month, yet there was a time not long ago that the Kings were the least-favoured other team of many South Africans. It came about through the perception that the Kings, when they first appeared in Super Rugby in 2013, were pushed into the competition to meet political objectives.

Their initial stay in Super Rugby was short-lived because they lost a promotion-relegation game. Back then, 2013, the Kings were keeping the Lions out of the competition, and it is ironic to think that had it not been for just a few points that separated them across a two-leg promotion-relegation series, the Lions would have stayed out of Super Rugby in 2014. They would not have enjoyed their subsequent success story.

That wouldn’t have been good for South African rugby, and it is incumbent now on the administrators to consider whether it will be good for the game in this country if the success story that is starting to unfold in the Eastern Cape was to be ended just as it is starting to show promise.

It was great to see the fans finally getting in behind their team by getting the turnstiles to click for the derby against the Sharks. Form and playing ability alone cannot be the only criteria for Super Rugby participation – in professional sport money is what talks and potential sponsors need to be provided with evidence of what they can get for the bucks they spend.

It’s taken the people of the Eastern Cape a while to show visible support for the Kings, and perhaps that is understandable. I haven’t been to Loftus this season, but the television evidence has suggested it’s been sparsely populated during this period where the Bulls are struggling.

What has been shown by the Kings experience though is what can be achieved by the establishment of a strong team culture and by the passion that so impressed Sharks coach Robert du Preez in his opponents last weekend. Not to mention too the exciting brand of rugby that the Kings are playing.

Whether a prospective fan comes from Durban, Pretoria, Cradock or Port Elizabeth, he or she will be prepared to pay money to watch entertaining rugby played by a team that has clear pride in the jersey.

So what happens now? It’s hard to say, for the issue of trimming the South African participation from six teams to four is a thorny one. Someone is going to have to lose out, and let’s not forget that just a few months ago everyone was singing the praises of the Cheetahs when they won the Currie Cup.

I have already mentioned that the Lions nearly got denied their success story, and while the Bulls are struggling now, who is to say that with the right coaching they won’t climb back to their former position of dominance? My own personal view is in line with that of Nick Mallett, that realignment and the creation of new identities might be necessary.

What is clear though is that unlike in their first stint in the competition in 2013, the Kings have clearly demonstrated their potential to be a vehicle to both showcase and develop the black talent that is produced in the region. They have also shown their potential to become a winning franchise.

I keep encountering people who ask how if they took this long to beat another South African team, the Kings can claim to deserve a place in Super Rugby ahead of another franchise.

However, the argument against the Kings’ claims on the basis that they haven’t done enough on the field does not stand up to thorough scrutiny. Like in that first season, when they had just a few months to get it right, the playing field has never been level for them.

Prop Ross Geldenhuys, who has experience of winning Super Rugby as a member of the 2015 Highlanders team, summed it up in an interview.

“What people need to understand is that other franchises at the beginning of a new season have new guys coming into a relatively settled team that has been together for a period of a couple of years. With us it was a case at the start of the season of everyone being new and having to learn the systems.”

In 2016 the Kings only started their pre-season training in January. The mix and match nature of his selections last season was because coach Deon Davids never had time to prepare and plan. This year they had a proper pre-season where they could set goals and get structures in place. It started slowly for them but the building blocks have been falling into place and they’ve experienced amazing growth.

So, while there are many factors that need to be considered in deciding the way forward, what should not be an overriding consideration is their overall record in Super Rugby up to now. The Kings have shown plenty of potential for a franchise that was never on a level playing field.

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