Gavin Rich - SuperSport.com
Johannesburg - The Southern Kings deny that their mission at Loftus was to show up the decision to exclude them from Super Rugby, but what their shock win did do was show teams that will remain in the competition what good coaching and leadership can do.
We didn’t need to wait until their win over the Bulls to get the message that this is a team that plays for each other. Indeed, over the past few months they’ve shown the precise values and ingredients that the Bulls have lacked, and which was the reason for the miserly turn-out at the Pretoria venue in the penultimate round of a troubled season for the three time champions.
The Kings had a productive training camp just before the season started where the players set goals for the season and resolved to take ownership of their performances and play for one another. It started slowly, but the win over the Sunwolves in Singapore, which was achieved with something to spare, in an early round of competition did send out a signal of what they might be capable of.
It was during their tour of Australia later in the competition though that they really started making their point, both in terms of the successful team culture that had been established, as well as in showing that they were indeed a team that was well coached. Some defensive errors let them down in their first two matches, but they started to show great attacking shape and the evolution of the team was undeniable.
They should have beaten the Western Force in Perth but were denied in the final minutes and were more competitive in the following week’s match against the Reds in Brisbane than the final scoreline might have suggested. In their last tour game they hit bulls-eye, making up a substantial halftime deficit to beat the Waratahs in a thrilling finish in Sydney. There was only one team on the field in he second half.
Ironically, or perhaps it wasn’t so ironic, this all came just after it was confirmed that the Super Rugby structure and format would change next year, and that South Africa would be losing two of the current six teams to fit in with the switch to a 15 team tournament.
It didn’t take much intuition to figure out that the Kings would be in the firing line. After all, they were the most recent South African additions to the competition, and they are not a big city union rolling in money.
There is enough going for rugby in Port Elizabeth though, and the great strides made by Deon Davids and his fellow coaches was dramatically underlined when they thrashed the Rebels and then pipped the Sharks in a thriller in front of a large crowd at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Injuries didn’t help them in subsequent weeks but now they are back on the winning trail again, with the value of the one point win over the Jaguares being shown when the Argentine side thrashed the Waratahs this past weekend.
At Loftus what was clear to see was the evolvement of the Kings’ playing pattern. Of the South African teams, only the Lions are better at attacking with ball in hand than the Kings are, and it is massive kudos to the effort put into developing their game that they have travelled so far so quickly, with Saturday’s win being their sixth of the season.
If the Jaguares trip up against the Rebels in Melbourne this week and the Kings beat the Cheetahs in their final Super Rugby match in Port Elizabeth on Friday, the Kings will end in the top four on the combined South African conference table. They are already guaranteed of finishing ahead of the Cheetahs and the Bulls, and now have six wins to the Bulls’ four.
That is no mean achievement for a side that started from scratch only in January last year and which went into this season with little continuity. As far as coaching achievement is concerned, the turn-around ranks alongside that of Eddie Jones at England after the last World Cup as an indicator of what a dramatic impact leadership and coaching can have on a team.
It’s certainly not just through talent alone that rugby success is achieved, and it was interesting to hear Sunwolves captain Willie Britz talking after his team’s defeat to the Stormers in this latest round.
“I have grown a lot in my two years in Japan. I’d say I’ve grown more and learnt more in two years in Japan than in the rest of my rugby career in South Africa combined,” said the former Lions and Cheetahs player.
That’s an indictment of South African coaching, and hopefully there is going to be a much needed upswing in that department in the country. It has happened at the Kings and it is happening less obviously at some of the other franchises, but it still has to happen at the Bulls, where John Mitchell has yet to take charge due to his commitments to the Eagles.
Certainly on the evidence of the past few weeks, the Kings could justifiably argue that they have more right on current form to be playing Super Rugby than the Bulls. Not that their exit from the competition is necessarily a disaster for them.
In the coming weeks we will learn more about what the future holds in store for the Cheetahs and Kings, but if the signs are being read correctly, and they are heading to Europe and the Pro-12, then their exit from Super Rugby is certainly not a death sentence for either union. On the contrary, they may find they become attractive destinations for players who might find an overnight flight to Europe more palatable than the long haul to an inevitable beating in New Zealand, and the other debilitating travel aspects that will remain a reality in Super Rugby even in the new format.
What is sad though is that the uncertainty has probably cost both unions players who might have stayed on, and kingpins such as Lionel Cronje and Chris Cloete are moving elsewhere. Davids spoke after the Sharks game in May about how concerned he was at the prospect that he would have to rebuild his team from scratch again. Hopefully it won’t be that bad, because as it stands a strong foundation is in place.
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