Port Elizabeth – Any doubt about Southern Kings' status in their debut Super Rugby season was emphatically removed on the eve of their campaign.
Kings captain Luke Watson admitted at their first team announcement they were unfancied to perform against the top Super Rugby sides.
“Underdogs for this game? I think we will be the underdogs for the whole season,” Watson said.
Like any Super Rugby rookie team, the Kings will not be aiming to win the competition. Rather, their chief priority will be to avoid excess humiliation and try and avoid a promotion-relegation playoff against the wounded Lions at the end of the season.
They would have to finish fourth in the South African conference, which would be a considerable achievement given that several of their players have not been exposed to the standards of Super Rugby before.
Their entry into the tournament comes with many still questioning their right to be there and they can expect little sympathy should things come unstuck.
Southern Kings president Cheeky Watson said they had been dealt with a deck stacked against them, while Kings director of rugby Alan Solomons recently emphasised the tricky task they faced once they had been given the green light.
“The recruitment process was bedevilled when the decision to let the Kings play Super Rugby was only made on August 16,” Solomons said.
“That made it difficult to recruit players in Europe and, domestically, it also made it challenging.”
Facing criticism on the lack of black representation in the franchise, Solomons believed many talented players from the region – the Ndungane twins, Lwazi Mvovo and Siya Kolisi – were forced to join other franchises because of the Eastern Cape's lack of opportunity.
Since Solomons linked up with the Kings, they had followed a policy of 'keep them home, bring them home', and he was hoping this would stem the exodus of promising young players from the region.
The franchise is ostensibly made up from Eastern Province, Border and South Western Districts players, although the team management have spread their net much wider in a bid to come up with a competitive unit.
The Kings understand they have been given only one chance and will be banking on strong crowd support as well as a cohesive team ethic to give themselves any hope of success.
“Playing Super Rugby is not a victory for the Southern Kings. It is a victory for the whole of the Eastern Cape,” Watson said.
“It has been a hard-fought battle by rugby administrators who have had to walk a long road to bring Super Rugby to the region.
“It has taken years and years and a lot of effort, and it is very important that people in this region celebrate the occasion of being involved in top-class rugby.”
The Kings face the Western Force in their first ever Super Rugby match in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. – Sapa