Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The continued resurgence of the Kings, basking in their best ever run of form and a particularly landmark derby win on Saturday, heaps pressure on SA Rugby to rethink the likelihood that they will be sacrificed from the 2018 Super Rugby competition onward.
Tournament parent body SANZAAR announced a few weeks ago that South Africa would have to bin two of its currently six franchises - and Australia one of its five - in a reduced, reworked 15-team event next year.
The Cheetahs and Kings were swiftly touted as likeliest victims, but the last-named team have subsequently embarked on a gutsy, inspiring crusade to confirm their value to Super Rugby.
This phenomenon reached a new peak in Port Elizabeth at the weekend as a healthy crowd turned out to watch them upset coastal rivals the Sharks 35-32 in an enthralling, fast-tempo and fluctuating exhibition of the game.
It was a poignant bit of history for the grimly-determined Eastern Cape crew, as it represented their maiden domestic scalp in 19 attempts, going back to their short-lived debut in the competition in 2013.
There were scenes of unbridled joy on the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium pitch afterwards as coach Deon Davids and his lieutenants came down from the booth to congratulate their demonstratively chuffed charges.
If the Kings are effectively already at their own, drawn-out funeral, they are making it a bizarrely upbeat burial ceremony - and instead only showing tangible signs of green shoots in rather ironic growth.
These are times of hitherto unmatched, consistent success for the often cash-strapped and crisis-plagued unit, as they have now won three fixtures in a row: ahead of toppling the Sharks, they had thrashed the Melbourne Rebels 44-3 at the same venue, and also beaten 2014 champions the Waratahs 26-24 in Sydney.
After only 10 of their 15 ordinary-season matches, the Kings have already now ensured their best season in win terms with four – double their tally in 2016, and even eclipsing their spirited debut season of 2013 under Alan Solomons’s shrewd tutelage when they won three and drew one of 16 games.
Their players and officials have been offering certain less-than-subtle hints during the last few weeks that they know their fate is sealed, and have arguably been able to simply approach games with a happy-go-lucky, nothing-to-lose approach as a consequence.
But the run of good results is also having the effect of galvanising public opinion in favour of some sort of stay of execution, at the very least.
Indeed, SARU may be urged, whether it is a feasible exercise at this point or not, to go back to SANZAAR – the Aussie conference has wilted very significantly in 2017, for instance - and urge a rethink over where the three stipulated culls should actually come from.
Is it right that South Africa and Australia have four sides each henceforth, when the most obvious collective weakness in the competition is coming from Down Under?
In that context, you could argue that a fitting scrap takes place next Saturday, as the fired-up Kings contemplate the opportunity for another victory when the Brumbies come to town (19:30 kick-off).
It is an educative meeting because somehow the once-formidable side from Canberra hang onto top spot (and thus the guarantee of a place in the knockout phase) in the Aussie group, albeit with a paltry three wins from 10 starts and the same number of log points as the Kings now have (19).
The strides the Kings are suddenly making also bring into renewed focus the presence in Super Rugby - they are already earmarked to remain in the reduced competition – of the Japan-based Sunwolves.
Do they cut it as a proper drawcard in a competition labouring so much more for legitimacy and a strength-versus-strength factor these days?
A record this season of one win from 10 matches and just seven log points suggests not … and keep in the mind that the Kings beat them convincingly in Singapore on March 4 (37-23).
But another example of how the Kings have begun to find their feet comes by revisiting the relevance of their triumph over the Sharks – an outcome that also casts some fresh doubt over the Durban-based team’s qualification chances for the knockout phase and will have pleased the Jaguares no end.
It was only last year that the very same Sharks foes pretty much slaughtered them in two encounters, 43-8 in Port Elizabeth and 53-0 at Kings Park, so the Kings have certainly come on in leaps and bounds.
If the fate of the two scheduled SA sacrifices from Super Rugby is revealed, as indicated, by the end of June, then the Kings probably have just two further matches ahead of the guillotine to keep showing what a beating heart they have – Brumbies next weekend and then the Lions in Johannesburg before the recess for Test activity.
At the same time, if there is no way the decision to ditch two SA franchises can be revisited, then SARU can hardly be castigated too heavily if it is still decided - as strongly speculated it will – that Super Rugby needs to remain in the bigger economic and rugby-traditional metropolises of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban.
Next weekend’s fixtures (home teams first, all kick-offs SA time):
Friday, May 12
Chiefs v Crusaders - 09:35
Stormers v Blues - 19:00
Saturday, May 13
Hurricanes v Cheetahs - 09:35
Force v Highlanders - 11:45
Sunwolves v Sharks - 13:55
Lions v Bulls - 17:15
Kings v Brumbies - 19:30
Sunday, May 14
Waratahs v Rebels - 08:05
Byes: Jaguares, Reds
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