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iol spt feb17 Southern Kings

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The Southern Kings head into the deep waters of Super Rugby with lots of question marks about their readyness. Photo by Michael Sheehan

The men in suits at the South African Rugby Union are going to be sweating over the next three months as their newly born minnow, the Southern Kings, head into the deep waters of Super Rugby.

A full-strength Kings side lost to Griquas last week and the previous weekend they visited the relegated Lions in an ironic fixture given that the Johannesburg team were axed to make way for the Kings in a controversial boardroom decision. They had 40 points put past them, although the Kings’ Kiwi coach Matt Sexton will argue that he took the fizz out of the grudge game by resting frontline players.

The birth of the Kings follows a gestation period going back almost a decade to the Southern Spears as Saru prevaricated about how they were going to revive rugby in the Eastern Cape, where black rugby has a stronghold, and has long been the attention of a government that have transformation at the top of their sporting agenda.

Finally, Saru were forced into a corner last year and they had to make a decision on how to make six franchises go into five. It was eventually ruled that the team that finished lowest in the 2012 tournament, the Lions, had to drop out and there was to be an annual promotion-relegation match to determine who would be South Africa’s “fifth” team in Super Rugby.

The chances of the Kings featuring in a promotion-relegation match later this year are outstanding. The only way the Kings will feature in 2014 is if Sanzar act on Saru’s pleas for expansion.

Nobody has anything against the Kings, but it is likely they are going to get some big hidings and may the rugby deities have mercy on them when they visit the likes of the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Brumbies next month.

The Kings have a good infrastructure in place at the magnificent Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, which was built brand new for the Fifa World Cup, and have a wily director of rugby in Alan Solomons, while Sexton is a promising coach. They have an inspirational captain in the charismatic Luke Watson, but what they don’t have is big name players or the experience to survive in the ruthless world of Super Rugby.

You have to have sympathy for the Kings. The issue of their inclusion was up in the air for so long that they could not attract top players. Nobody would sign until it was in black and white that the Kings would go up, and by that time the stars were already signed elsewhere.

And the Kings can expect no mercy from their South African colleagues, who will regard them as a bonus-point win. After hosting the Force in their first game this week, the Sharks visit and last year’s beaten finalists are looking better than ever.

They have kept intact their team from last year and have brought back crowd favourites in Ryan Kankowski, who was in Japan, Butch James (Lions) and Francois Steyn (Racing Metro). The latter will captain the side in the absence of injured regular captain Keegan Daniel. The Sharks have opted for a low-key build up, avoiding Super Rugby opposition and warmed up impressively against the Leopards and Pumas.

The team the Sharks dramatically beat in the semifinals last year, the Stormers, will again be among the top finishers, but for them to go further than last year they must hone their attacking edge. Last season, the Cape side had the best defensive record but at the same time battled to score tries. The Stormers have consistency in their squad and have added new young Boks Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute and Pat Cilliers (all from the Lions).

Sadly, Springbok flank Schalk Burger remains on the injury list and it is now almost a year since he first injured a knee. He has not played in the interim.

Juan Smith, the former Cheetahs captain who played many a Test with Burger, has had similar misfortune with an Achilles tendon injury and has announced his retirement, a blow for both the Cheetahs and the Boks. Otherwise the Bloemfontein side are looking pretty good.

The Bulls were supposed to fall apart in 2012 following the retirement of Bok greats in Victor Matfied, Bakkies Botha, Fourie du Preez and Danie Rossouw and the migration of their management team to Heyneke’s Meyer’s Springboks, but they surprised many to finish fifth.

There is no reason to believe they cannot build on last season’s performances, which included a 61-8 demolition of the champions, the Reds. - Sunday Independent


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