Quite rightly there has been much fanfare about Johan Ackermann’s tenure at the Lions and the transformation from pretenders in Super Rugby to genuine title contenders.
Equally, there should be as much fanfare in this country about the Southern Kings coach Deon Davids.
Ackermann produced wonders with the Lions over a five-year period, which culminated in the hosting of a Super Rugby final in front of a competition record crowd at Emirates Airlines Park, also globally known as simply Ellis Park.
More people paid to watch the Lions in the final (62 500) than have paid to watch the Springboks (55 000) against France in the third and final Test earlier this season. It says everything about the success of the Lions.
Ackermann and his squad of players turned a crowd of 625 from five years back into a crowd of 62 500 because of style of play and quality of performance.
And obviously because of winning results.
Ackermann, now with Gloucester, will return to South Africa in the future an even better coach for the northern hemisphere experience. Don’t bet against him being a future Springbok coach.
Ackermann is deserving of every accolade, but while he adds to the strength of the northern hemisphere rugby scene, Davids is as deserving of every bit of applause and support for his continued investment of South African rugby and, in particular, rugby in the Eastern Cape.
Davids is the unsung hero of the South African coaching elite because he managed to turn supposed donkeys into stallions who enjoyed a record-breaking third and last season in Super Rugby.
Davids’s Kings were an afterthought in most previews of the 2017 Super Rugby season, but they were much more than a footnote at the completion of the tournament.
Davids’s Kings won in Australia against the Waratahs in Sydney, they won in Argentina against the Jaguares, they won in Singapore and they won for the first time against South African rivals the Sharks and the Bulls.
They beat the Bulls at Loftus, downed the Sharks in Port Elizabeth and were a few minutes away from also beating the Sharks in Durban. They completed their Super Rugby campaign with a one-point defeat at home to the Cheetahs.
They did this with a tribe of wannabes, nobodies and supposedly has-beens.
What Davids achieved with the Kings in 2017 was remarkable. They played superb rugby and consistently proved to be competitive, despite the limitations in player resource.
Davids, in 2016, had been given three weeks to put together a squad to play Super Rugby. The side was competitive, if outgunned. They fronted several of the New Zealand teams and in some instances took a beating, but they refused to ever go away quietly.
Davids, as a coach, had no certainty about the team’s Super Rugby future in 2016. He didn’t even know if they would play Super Rugby in 2017 and he never knew if they would be playing in the competition in 2018.
Somehow he turned the adversity into strength. Players excelled, there were home and away wins and a handful of the players were selected for the 2017 larger Springbok training squad. These players a few months ago also represented South Africa ‘A’ against the French Barbarians.
Davids also had to negotiate a last month in Super Rugby when his players knew the Kings would not be a Super Rugby franchise in 2018. There was no guarantee that the Kings would even exist as a professional entity in 2018, yet his men played for the jersey as if they were honouring a 100-plus year history.
Davids and his players won the hearts of South Africans and the respect of the opposition. They also played bloody good rugby.
Davids's media profile is almost non-existent when compared to other South African rugby coaches. He doesn’t seek out the media or the headlines, but he does seek out quality in rugby performances.
He’s a very good rugby coach but all indications are he is an even better human being. He could easily have sought a more stable coaching environment, in which squad depth was stronger and victories would come easier.
But he has refused to take the high road in his coaching career and made the strongest of statements to South Africa’s rugby bosses that they indeed have a coach with X-factor within the South African system.
Davids lost 15 of his 2017 Super Rugby squad to other franchises because of the uncertainty about the future of the Southern Kings and he has been given a month to prepare the Kings for their debut season the newly expanded PRO14.
Davids has committed to the Kings for the next three years and instead of bemoaning the loss of 15 players he has sought out the inspiration in what it means to the region to have a professional team guaranteed inclusion in an international tournament that will see some of the best players in the United Kingdom and Ireland visit Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.
Davids is a South African rugby gem and in a week when the Springboks hoisted a flag in Port Elizabeth promoting the #SouthAfrica2023 Rugby World Cup bid, it wouldn’t have been out of place to hoist a flag in honour of Davids.
Coaches like Davids boost the integrity of the South African rugby landscape. Davids has done his apprenticeship over the last 15 years and demands respect. Coaches of his quality also demand investment.
Mark Keohane is a Cape-Town based award-winning rugby specialist and former Springbok Communications Manager. Follow him on Twitter
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