Cape Town - The perpetually embattled Southern Kings set off
soon on another arduous overseas leg - their fourth and mercifully last - of
the 2017/18 PRO14.
Whilst compatriots the Cheetahs have had an altogether more
promising baptism to the previously all northern-hemisphere competition, currently
looking well on track for a quarter-finals berth as third-placed side in
Conference A, the Port Elizabeth-based outfit can safely already be deemed
also-rans ... to a very damning extent, too.
The maths is simple: played 13, lost 13, win percentage
The sands of time are beginning to trickle out for that
elusive first triumph over somebody, anybody - eight matches to go, including
the next three abroad.
Put it this way: the Kings won’t be installed as favourites
for any of their latest tour dates against Ulster on February 9 (the Irish side
are second in Conference A), then the Ospreys and finally Leinster, also
currently in the runners-up berth in Conference B.
So there must be every chance the Kings will have stretched
their unenviable duck to 0/16 by the time they head home for a five-strong
“final straight” of all SA-staged matches against Newport, Benetton, Munster,
Cardiff and the Cheetahs respectively.
Maybe that batch of fixtures represents their best chance of
sampling a victory or two, although there is also the risk that they will be
mentally and physically shattered, not to mention progressively more
demoralised, by then.
Remember that the vast majority of their modest personnel
will have been playing rugby just about around the clock since the beginning of
2017. The Kings were still a Super Rugby team then and were only “rescued” in
August when they were latched onto the PRO14 with the Cheetahs.
That alone is a strong reason to assume that the
administrators of the competition north of the equator will not be sounding any
alarm bells yet over the Kings’ competitiveness in the PRO14, even if the
unpalatable situation does materialise that they end their first campaign 0/21.
More realistically, you would think, the second season will
be more instrumental in gauging whether they can cut it on a longer-term basis.
After all, it remains little short of tragic that, just as
they were starting to look a half-decent Super Rugby side in the middle of last
year, the cull notice came and a mass exodus (just another from Port
Elizabeth!) of premier players followed, before it became known that PRO14 was
going to be a franchise lifeline.
The one saving grace thus far is that the Kings haven’t been
truly annihilated in many matches: their worst result mathematically remains
the 57-10 away loss to defending champions the Scarlets – what a way to kick
off in their new fold, and with a then extremely raw, virtually all-new
combination of Kings players.
Since then they have only surrendered by a margin of 30
points once, 37-7 to Edinburgh in the scenic Scottish city, and had close calls
against Ulster (36-43) and the Scarlets (30-34) on Eastern Cape turf.
Still, they cannot afford to sit on their laurels and just
assume they will be tolerated for much more than two seasons in Europe’s third
biggest professional league - behind the English Premiership and French Top 14 -
if results don’t start to buck up in a meaningful way.
When the former “Celtic League” became the PRO12 in 2011/12,
for example, Italian outfit Aironi, in only their second year of participation,
were the worst-performing team - though they did earn four wins from 22
fixtures - and unceremoniously dumped from it, albeit with financial reasons a
key factor at play.
Zebre then debuted from 2012/13 onward - they’re still there - and if the Kings want to draw any solace from their own current predicament,
the Parma-based side had a shocker in their first season: played 22, lost 22,
and as many as 18 points adrift of next-worst Newport.
But Zebre have consolidated satisfactorily since, including
an infinitely better follow-up season in 2013/14 when they claimed five scalps.
The Kings’ bumpy, intermittent presence in Super Rugby did
prove one thing: the crowds in PE will turn up in healthy numbers at Nelson
Mandela Bay Stadium if they are prospering to a satisfying enough degree in
Considering the cobbled-together, largely shoestring nature
of their maiden PRO14 squad, a tough first season always seemed likely so,
inevitably, gates have been increasingly humdrum as their struggles continue.
Home attendances - whether at their main home base or
elsewhere - have generally fluctuated between 3 000 and 4 000 although closer
to 7 000 (according to official figures) pitched up for the home derby against
the Cheetahs recently.
Such modest gates, however, are unlikely to be sustainable
over any lengthy period of time, especially when frequent travel costs to
Europe are taken into account.
Signs of renaissance - yes, another one in the rocky old
world of the Kings - would be gratifying in what is left of this season, as a
harbinger of hope for their pivotal season two in the PRO14 …
*Follow our chief
writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing