PRO14

Will punch-drunk Kings go winless all season?

2018-01-25 10:36
Deon Davids (Gallo)

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 zero.

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 results terms.

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

Read more on:    kings  |  pro14  |  rob houwing  |  port elizabeth  |  rugby
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