Kings should get three years
Before anyone makes fun of the fuss being made of the Southern Kings winning their historic first ever Super Rugby match, perhaps we should put it in perspective.
When the Western Force first entered the competition in 2006, it took them seven games to get their first bonus point and it wasn’t until May that they won their first game. The Melbourne Rebels were thumped 43-0 in their first match in 2011. In both cases, they finished last in their first season before applying what they learned the following year and improving.
The problem with the Kings is that they may not be in a position to learn from this year as the promotion-relegation system means there is a good chance they could drop out. The expectation that the Kings will be the last team in the South African conference by the end of the season remains a realistic one.
They are a new team and have yet to build up their depth, so once injuries start to intervene, as inevitably they will, the Kings will be in trouble. To grow, they need to play Super Rugby, and for the Kings to have a reasonable chance of settling into the competition and becoming established, they really should be guaranteed at least three years.
The more I think about it the more I am convinced that the South African rugby administration, if they really had transformation at heart, should have gone to the Cheetahs and the Lions three or four years ago to inform them that the Kings were going to enter the competition in 2013 and would be given a fair crack at establishing themselves.
It would then have been up to the Cheetahs and Lions, who have consistently been the bottom two SA teams when they have played Super Rugby, to decide how to get around the problem. If you compare the record of the Lions and Cheetahs as separate entities to when they played together as the Cats, the view that the Cats formula was a disaster is far from accurate.
At least the Cats played in the odd Super semifinal, something that the Lions and Cheetahs on their own have never come close to doing.
It wouldn't be a perfect solution, and first prize for Saru must surely be to get the Sanzar partners to arrive at a solution that enables six South African franchises to participate. But my experience this past weekend was enough to convince me that the administrators, for the good of the game and for the purpose of driving and accelerating transformation, simply have to do what they should have done but failed to do at the outset – they need to guarantee the Kings an extended stay.
I can imagine people getting worked up over that statement. After all, the Kings have played just one game, and there was a year when Chester William was coaching them that the Cats duped everyone by winning an opening match against the Bulls and then losing everything after that.
A similar thing can happen to the Kings, but their win over the Force isn’t really the point. It was the multiracial crowd, the scenes that we saw on television of different races mixing together to watch and then celebrate the Kings’ triumph, that got me excited.
I watched the game on television in Bloemfontein as I had travelled through to cover the Sharks’ clash with the Cheetahs. The previous night I had been at Loftus to watch the Bulls emphatically outplay the Stormers. At both stadiums I made the point to colleagues that the crowd was almost 100% white, and frankly the lack of numbers at Free State Stadium, regardless of race, is a problem.
When last did that stadium attract 32 000 spectators to a game against an Australian team like the Kings did? The timing of matches in the professional era hurts the Cheetahs more than most because many of their fans come from outlying areas. When games kicked off in mid-afternoon those supporters could make a day of it, but later kick-offs mean they either have to stay over in Bloemfontein or spend their late Saturday nights on the road.
The Kings, representing a large populated area like the Eastern Cape, have a ready and hungry rugby market, and most importantly it is, along with the Western Cape, the one part of the country where rugby has had historical appeal among the black communities.
Forget how many black players there are in the Kings team right now, their first quest must surely be to build the structures and establish a successful culture that will attract supporters and help inspire the many black players coming out of the excellent Eastern Cape schooling system to play for them.
That though can’t happen overnight, and it can’t happen in one season. If South African rugby wants the Kings to make the impact on the game in this country that drove their inclusion in the first place, then the administrators need to get real – a three year stay in the competition has to be a non-negotiable. I don’t see either the Lions or the Cheetahs enjoying enough success or support to make them indispensable as separate entities.