Sad story of the Kings not all at SA Rugby’s door

DURBAN – The knee-jerk reaction to the imminent culling of the Kings from Super Rugby is to condemn Saru because of their long-running clamour to promote the game in a traditional rugby stronghold.

And there is the question of whether that goal has been sacrificed on the altar of financial expediency.

It is more complicated than that, and a deeper look into the game in the troubled Kings region suggests that the time has come for Border and Eastern Province Rugby to start afresh and pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

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Malcolm Jaer scored three tries against the Western Force this season. Photo: Samuel Shivambu, BackpagePixFlyhalf Lionel Cronjé has been one of the key figures for the Kings in 2017. Photo: Gerhard Duraan, BackpagePix

The people of East London and Port Elizabeth want a team to be proud of, and they are so gatvol with the financial shenanigans (EP Rugby have been liquidated twice in a decade) that they can’t be bothered to go to the magnificent Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium to watch the Kings.

Just 2 500 people turned up to watch the Kings host the Chiefs earlier this season. There were 4 500 people at the Lions game, and the best turnout so far was when the Stormers visited (10 000).

So you get where SA Rugby are coming from when they say the Kings are not economically viable. The much maligned governing body are in fact paying the Kings players. They are all on short-term contracts for the duration of Super Rugby, and then are free agents.

EP Rugby could not pay the players. They are bankrupt.

The funny thing is that the Kings have actually been playing some good rugby, especially considering they entered Super Rugby with no momentum or consistency in their squad. They are using mostly local players, and some of them have caught the attention of the international Super Rugby community.

How good is fullback Malcolm Jaer? He scored a hat-trick against the Force and the Aussie commentators were yelling his praises. One of his tries came from a sleight of hand by flyhalf Lionel Cronjé, who spun the ball around his body and then stabbed a grubber through for Jaer to collect.

Last week against the Reds in Brisbane, wing Makazole Mapimpi ran rings around fullback Karmichael Hunt, and commentator Phil Kearns reckoned it was one of the most magical tries he had seen.

Flank Chris Cloete has been superb and is an opensider in the mould of Heinrich Brüssow. All of those players will be snapped up by the bigger unions in due course. Scrumhalf James Hall is another.

But how did it go so wrong for the Kings after that promising season in 2013, when they had Alan Solomons as director of rugby, New Zealander Matt Sexton as head coach, and Omar Mouneimne as defence coach?

They had 45 000 spectators at one of their games as the patient folk of Port Elizabeth switched on to Super Rugby. The Kings were highly competitive from a standing start, but still finished last and had to play promotion-relegation against the Lions on a home-and-away basis. The Lions squeaked through on aggregate.

Flyhalf Lionel Cronjé has been one of the key figures for the Kings in 2017. Photo: Gerhard Duraan, BackpagePix

Look where the Lions are now and, dear oh dear, look what has happened to EP Rugby.

A major issue was that the Kings’ administration way overspent on players and coaching staff in that 2013 season and got into huge debt. All the while, Cheeky Watson was saying that a major sponsor was imminent...

To cut a sad story short, EP Rugby went into administration. The good news is there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Mayor Athol Trollip is negotiating a deal where the Nelson Mandela Bay Council bails the rugby union out to the tune of R15 million over three years, and SA Rugby will play their part by giving PE three Tests over three years (this year, the Boks play Argentina at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium).

Meanwhile, the EP rugby team have been relegated from the Currie Cup premier division to the first division. It doesn’t get much lower than that.

Surely the time has come for rugby in this important region to draw a line in the sand, start from scratch with a brand-new administration, and build itself up through the ranks?

Rugby in the Border and Eastern Cape cannot forever rely on Saru to parachute in supplies for the beleaguered troops. If rugby in the area gets itself on track from grassroots level and is properly administered, the fans will slowly return.

It can be done. The Lions were nowhere in 2013 and are now tipped to win Super Rugby. The rugby folk of EP must be prepared to do the hard yards and not look for short cuts and bail-outs.

The Mercury

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