Kings move into new territory
The buoyant Southern Kings will be looking to cross a new frontier this week as they prepare for a Vodacom Super Rugby match against the Rebels which, for once, some people might actually expect them to win.
There is only one way to put it – the Kings have been the revelation of the season so far if you take into consideration the expectations of the pre-season. The opening win against the Western Force was unexpected and the more recent 28-all draw with the Brumbies even more so, particularly if you consider that the Kings actually scored four tries in that match against one of the supposedly better defences in the competition.
They could so easily have walked away with five points from that match, and although happy with the draw, they would have left Canberra wondering what might have been had flyhalf George Whitehead kicked the kickable penalty he missed with eight minutes to go on the clock. That would have brought the Kings to within a point and they would have been striking for victory in those last minutes rather than a draw.
The result was good enough though to spark big celebrations in Port Elizabeth and elsewhere in South Africa where the importance of the Kings doing well is recognised, and coach Matt Sexton afterwards said he was happy with the three log points.
“We are happy with the three points. We went out there to match their physicality and make sure that we stop their momentum because they’re a very dangerous side and we did that. We ticked those boxes well and truly,” said Sexton.
Although giving the impression they were dominating their opponents physically in the way that the Stormers did in previous seasons, the Kings only enjoyed 37% possession and were a man down for 10 minutes near the end after prop Schalk Ferreira, a busy player in their defensive game, was yellow carded. Sexton said it was a massive statement to the conditioning staff that the team could still win when down to 14 men at such a late stage of the game.
“The strain you get put under when you’re a man down at that late stage, and the guys were still fine. They’re a fit side and they have worked really hard over the off season to get that done, then coupled with some massive defence,” he said.
But now comes the harder part. The Kings have a chance to really make a statement by picking up a first overseas win in the last match of the tour against the Rebels in Melbourne. The Rebels’ good win over the Western Force in Perth this past weekend might still make them slight favourites, but it is a fact that the Kings won’t be seen to be on a wing and a prayer going into the game like they were before the other fixtures.
How will they cope with what could be a new pressure for them brought by greater expectation? Judging from the words of Kings director of rugby Alan Solomons, they will treat it like the other games they have played – everything will be treated as an experience to be lived and enjoyed.
And the Kings do have one advantage over the Rebels in the sense that they’ve been in Melbourne since last Saturday, and it’s a Saturday game. The Rebels played their last tour match in Perth only on Saturday. The Kings enjoyed a Sunday off after doing some analysis on Saturday, and are now giving their preparations for the final game full focus.
“We have a full week to prepare for the Rebels and can get really stuck in. We are certainly not taking them for granted. They are a desperate side that desperate to get their competition back on track and we know it’s going to be a tough game,” said Solomons.
In that Solomons quote though lies the difference in this game – it’s now the Kings who are talking about not taking another team for granted. Usually it is the other way around, and how they respond to the change will provide a further measure of the growth of the Eastern Cape team.
Demetri Catrakilis didn’t start against the Brumbies because of a late concern around his knee, which was why George Whitehead was moved to flyhalf from fullback. Catrakilis’ injury will be monitored during the week and the Kings appear confident he will play, but there was plenty of reason for the management to be happy with the performance of replacement fullback Siviwe Shakes Soyizwapi, who flew up to join the team the week before the Brumbies game after Hadleigh Parkes broke his arm against the Hurricanes last weekend.
Soyizwapi was originally on the bench after Elric van Vuuren sprained his ankle during the captain’s run and he then moved to fullback on the eve of the game when concerns developed around Catrakilis’ knee.
“We had some late changes to things and Shakes came on and played admirably. He was fresh of the plane for us this week so he hasn’t had time to really find his feet, but despite that he played really well,” he said.
Sexton said Soyizwapi, along with Sergeal Petersen and Rynier Bernardo, who had all come through the Kings Academy, were true testament to the local talent in the province.
Indeed, and with the Eastern Province Kings beating the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein this past weekend, and with the Madibas making the Varsity Cup semifinal, where they only just lost to the Maties, the depth in the Eastern Cape appears to be healthy. All the more reason for SARU to find a way to ensure that the fast developing franchise is ensured an extended stay in Super Rugby.