“We will be ready. We will be good to go and we will be competiive.” Those are the defiant words of Southern Kings director of rugby Alan Solomons eight months out from the Eastern Cape franchise’s debut on the international rugby stage, when they will emulate Australia’s “created” franchises over the last few years in the Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels.
But there will be a highly significant difference – where there was no rugby history to speak of in Perth and Melbourne respectively, rugby in the Eastern Cape has the foundation of a rugby culture that has transcended all cultures in this country since the birth of the 20th century.
The greater East London and Port Elizabeth region that will make up the Kings is steeped in rugby history, it is starving for Super Rugby entertainment and it has the indigenous resources to propel South African rugby into a truly representative future.
Yet rugby in the region has been neglected for decades, and when former Springbok assistant coach Solomons was recruited by Eastern Province president Cheeky Watson to help him revitalise the sport, Solomons was confronted with a desolate landscape.
“Prior to Cheeky becoming involved in November 2008, the rugby in the region had deteriorated over time, which was understandable because neither Eastern Province or Border had been part of Super Rugby, apart from a short period with the Sharks in the late ’90s,” Solomons points out.
“There was no professional rugby and no Currie Cup Premier rugby, but all the time that senior rugby was regressing, schools rugby remained very strong, as it is today. The feeder system has always been there, but there was nowhere local for top players to go, so they moved on to the glamour provinces in this country,” he says.
By the time Watson came to power, senior rugby, through force of circumstance, was very poor and the best way to describe the EP and Border unions was “immature”, compared to the Bulls, Stormers or Sharks.
“Cheeky got things moving,” says Solomons. “In June 2009, we played against the touring British and Irish Lions. He asked me to coach the side, and with seven local players, some Bulls players on loan plus some invitation stars, we emerged from the game with honour.”
That kickstarted the Kings, and Solomons was invited to coach on a consultancy basis.
“We jogged along without too much happening before Cheeky and I came to the realisation that we had to do something to move the rugby on in the region that would facilitate entry into Super Rugby, so I came fulltime in June 2010 with a skeleton staff.”
At that stage, the Kings were told Super Rugby entry would be in 2011, but that was put back to 2013, and Solomons was okay with that because he had realised that he was starting from scratch.
“There were no structures in place. There was nothing going on. I had no administration staff, no facilities, no ancillary departments. We were taking the players to the local Virgin Active gym – when they could accommodate us. We were the antithesis of the professional unions in this country.”
Rugby had completely stagnated at the highest level. There was nothing going on and nowhere for it to happen, so to speak.
Solomons, who grew up in Uitenhage, just outside Port Elizabeth, came up with a strategic plan to revitalise rugby in the region, and after it was endorsed by the EP Rugby Union and by the chief executive of the South African Rugby Union, he got cracking.
It was agreed to build a rugby department that would seek to utilise the deep well of indigenous talent that exists in this region, with the aim of it becoming a standard-bearer for black rugby in South Africa, in Africa and globally, using sustainable local resources.
“The plan was to improve our structures each year from 2010 until we are ready for 2013, and today we have all the nuts and bolts in place for a truly professional rugby department,” Solomons says with pride. “All key staff are in place, and now it is a case of filling out certain departments with assistant staff.”
A tour of the fabulous Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, proud home of the Southern Kings, bears this out.
It fully resembles what is in operation at any of the leading South African Super Rugby franchises.
It is a self-contained unit that has, in one base, everything a professional rugby player needs – from training fields to a gym, medical and physio units to performance and analysis department.
It is a one-stop shop ready for Super Rugby, and personnel heading up the departments are among the best in in the business, as you would expect from Solomons, who earned a reputation as a shrewd lawyer before becoming a full-time rugby coach under former Springbok coach Nick Mallett.
The head coach from July 11 will be former Crusaders hooker Matt Sexton, who for years now has been the go-to set-piece coach for the New Zealand Rugby Union for all of its representative teams, including the All Blacks. Defence and breakdown coach Omar Mouneimne worked with Mallett when he coached Italy. Brad Moore has come from Canterbury with Sexton as kicking and skills coach.
Conditioning coach is the much-travelled Phil Mack, who worked with the Springboks under Harry Viljoen plus Ulster, the Brumbies and Leicester.
Fuelling the top structure is the Academy, started in 2010 under Robbie Kempson, who is assisted by another former Springbok in De Wet Barry and a former Eastern Province flyhalf in Gareth Wright.
All of them have roots in the Eastern Cape.
“The Academy is flourishing,” says Solomons. “Some 95 percent of the students are from the region, and 55 percent of them are black.
“We have a two-fold strategy at the Kings to get our rugby to the very top, and it very much involves the Academy. Firstly, we have to develop high-performance rugby from the top down because we have not had top-flight rugby, but at the same time we will transform the union from the bottom up through the Academy. We will build from within.”
The final piece in the jigsaw puzzle is recruitment. The Kings will have to buy most of their front-line players for 2013, but it has been hard for to sign top players because it has taken so long for the Kings’ participation in Super Rugby to be cast in stone.
“Year on year, the quality of our squad has improved since 2010 despite not having the carrot of Super Rugby.
“Our record in competitive games is about 78 percent. We won Division One in 2010, were runners-up 2011 and won the IRB Nations Cup and made the playoffs of this year’s Vodacom Cup using mostly Academy players.
“Now that we are confirmed for 2013, our recruitment will come from three sources: a small core of existing players, such as Luke Watson; players coming off contracts overseas, and thirdly South African players coming off contracts at the end of the year.”
The wily Solomons says that “eyebrows will be raised” when the signings are confirmed.
“We are working extremely hard behind the scenes. Our structures are in place, the top players will now start coming and we have the resources in the long term to build from within.
“Like I say, we will be ready and we will surprise a lot of people.”
Never shy to hold back, colourful Cheeky Watson says the bottom line is that the Kings will not be short of cash.
“We are in discussion with three possible equity partners and are working out which will be the best glove to fit our hand,” Watson said. “Each potential partner has its own specific demands, so we have to work out which is the best deal for us.”
One of those is Robert Gumede, head of the Gijima consortium that includes a number of IT companies. Gumede has previously tried his luck in rugby with the Golden Lions, but pulled out.
“We also have a number of sponsors we are talking to and it is a case of working out the finer details,” Watson said. “Whatever the case, money will not be an issue for the Kings.”
Which is a good job, because Watson says he has high ambitions of bringing back top rugby players from Europe while looking at returning exported Eastern Cape products who have been making other South African franchises wealthy.
“We recently counted 37 Eastern Cape players on duty in the five Super Rugby squads. Take the Sharks for instance. Keegan Daniel, Ryan Kankowski, Steven Sykes, Lwazi Mvovo, Odwa Ndungane and Tim Whitehead are from the Eastern Cape. At the Bulls, off the top of my head are Jacques and Dewald Potgieter, Akona Ndungane and CJ Stander.”
Watson admitted that buying a team for 2013 was not ideal, but was necessary in the short term.
“That is the hand we have been initially dealt because we have not had professional rugby, but that will change. Ideally, you want to produce your own team and grow from within, and when you see how our talent is flourishing for other teams, the long-term future of the Kings is guaranteed because our schoolboy stars now will mostly choose to stay at home.” – Cape Times