Clobbered? Yes, but Kings may rise... again

2017-09-03 14:34
Schalk Ferreira on the charge against the Scarlets (Getty Images)

Cape Town - Television pundit Stuart Barnes probably summed up the thoughts of many who witnessed the Kings’ unforgiving debut in the PRO14.

The former England flyhalf said that despite the lopsided final score-line, the result in favour of defending champions the Scarlets in Llanelli somehow didn’t feel like the 57-10 match it was.

He was also animated about how meaningfully the visitors from Port Elizabeth contributed to an excellent spectacle in tempo and attacking-spirit terms.

There was plenty of heavy breathing on both sides towards the finish, and no less an authority on the occasion than the player of the match, Scarlets right wing and former Crusaders stalwart Johnny McNicholl, confirmed that the encounter had equalled a good-level Super Rugby contest for its relentless pace and energy.

However unedifying South Africans, and particularly Eastern Cape enthusiasts, might have found the outcome on paper, there is no special reason to feel overly downbeat - not yet, anyway - about the Kings’ suitability to their new competitive landscape.

Yes, you might argue that the Welsh-based cup-holders were coming out of the northern off-season and should only improve in fluidity and error-restriction terms themselves, but the strong majority of their squad are well familiar with each other within the white lines, courtesy of their stellar achievements last season and certain established positional alliances even earlier than that.

There was no such advantage for the Kings, who recently had their budding ranks near-cripplingly plundered by other unions in South Africa, deals having been struck before it was known - most unfortunately and infuriatingly - that the Super Rugby-culled Kings would find a PRO14 lifeline.

So not for the first time in their short but tumultuous history, head coach Deon Davids and his immediate allies have found themselves in the position of having to cobble together at very limited notice what, initially at least, seems more like an “Eastern Cape Invitation XV” than anything else.

Keep this in mind: a mere four of the Kings team that started the closing Super Rugby ordinary-season fixture against the Cheetahs on July 14 (a tight 21-20 reverse in the Friendly City) also ran out amidst the XV that began against Scarlets. Of the quartet, the only unchanged pairing in any area of the park for them was at centre, where Luzuko Vulindlu and Berton Klaasen operated again in tandem.

In the seven weeks or so subsequently, their personnel have been overwhelmingly idle in game-time terms - the Kings don’t play Currie Cup - with an awful lot of hastily-hired guns from various corners of South Africa also tasked with suddenly forging new understandings at a rate of knots.

Under the circumstances, how the Kings fared against the title-holders away - hardly the most desirable way to debut, roster-wise - left cause for considerable hope, however bizarre that may appear to many.

Particularly in the thoroughly engrossing first period, where the Kings managed to stay right in touch (they trailed only 15-10 at the change-over) there were remarkably decent passages of continuity from the tourists.

When the floodgates eventually opened, too, you never got the sense that the visitors wilted altogether in pure fortitude.

There was also enough bright evidence to suggest that certain of their freshly-acquired individuals deemed surplus to requirements further up or down the SA coast may, progressively, thrive in the opportunity to get proper, consistent exposure in a competition commanding healthy global eyeballs.

Into this category may well fall Kurt Coleman - for several years a third- or even fourth-choice type of flyhalf at Newlands - rangy lock Jurie van Vuuren and that always big-hearted wing S’bu Sithole.

At one point on Saturday he even managed to near-replicate a “Lomu on Catt” run-over occurrence as he flattened Leigh Halfpenny in a narrowly-thwarted charge for the try-line.

In spite of their bad second-fiddle status on the deck, there were also some constructive moments from Khaya Majola, the open-side marauder seldom given solid match-time at the Sharks because of their traditional plethora of sound-calibre loose forwards.

Some will consider my take on the Kings at this point overly optimistic, and I don’t doubt that there were sobering, borderline-humiliating aspects to their Llanelli thumping.

But context and early-campaign circumstance should not be summarily tossed aside.

I cannot supress a reasonably devout feeling that this 47-point setback may already be about as bad as it will get for them; that the only way, by extension, is up.

Watch this space?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing



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