Watching the Southern Kings win their first-ever Super Rugby match was like watching a first child learn how to walk, like seeing your classmate make the cover of the newspaper for saving an old Greek lady when the Baakens river flooded. Like getting barrelled on a wide outside peak at Seals just before sunset on a Sunday, when the parking lot’s packed and the guys you came with are checking your wave, sharing a sixpack and a smoke in their wetsuits before heading back to PE.
The closest one-word emotion to capture it would be pride. I was proud to watch the team from my home town win their first match in the planet’s toughest rugby competition. The closest three-word emotion would be, “fuck those okes”. Fuck the okes who set us up to fail. Who went back on their word, who said we were a token team who weren’t good enough, and didn’t have enough black players anyway.
The Kings found out for certain on 16 August 2012 that they would participate in the 2013 Super XV at the expense of the Lions. This came after some monumental backtracking by Saru going back to 2007, when they were first slated to compete as the Southern Spears.
By the time the Kings got the go-ahead last year, most SA-based players were contracted for 2013 – the black ones and the white ones. And the hard-done-by Lions players made a point of snubbing their deposers.
That left the Kings scratching around for foreign players – of which we’re now told we can only use two.
Sponsors, too, are a hard thing to organise at short notice. Especially when you’re positioned in the economic backwater of Port Elizabeth and your team is only guaranteed one season in the big time. Have a look at that Kings jersey. Besides kit sponsor Puma, there’s not a logo anywhere. Pure black. It’s the kind of kit teams play trial matches in.
They’ve since secured a sponsor from infrastructure development group Aveng, and good luck to them.
But lack of sponsorship bucks has not held back the Kings and the Athol Fugard of rugby coaching, Alan Solomons. Solomons has made a science out of making scarce resources world class, and the EP Kings – in the admittedly lame Currie Cup First Division – have an 85% win rate over the past three years.
There have been many whispers and straight-out allegations on the sports blogs about the political reasons behind the Kings’ elevation to Super rugby. Some point fingers at an alliance between Accelerate Sport, which manages the Nelson Mandela Bay stadium and some shadowy figures within SA rugby.
The story goes that Accelerate needs an anchor sports team to fill the stadium and earn incentives. Accelerate has former SA Rugby Football Union MD Rian Oberholzer and ex-Sascoc (SA Sports & Olympic Committee) chairman Gideon Sam as directors. So they have been using their contacts in SA rugby to hasten the Kings promotion and put bums on seats in PE.
Whoever’s saying this, fuck those ous too. If political alliances and persuasion is what it takes to give the neglected Eastern Cape a fair chance at Super Rugby, then so be it. Patiently waiting our turn was never going to work.
The rugby establishment has spent 22-odd years of readmission fudging transformation and ensuring the demographics of top sports teams bear no relation to the racial make-up of the country at large.
If bringing a top franchise to the Eastern Cape, home of black rugby, must be done using contacts, back-room deals and nudge-nudge, wink-wink reciprocity, so be it. That’s how SA rugby’s been run since the year dot!
And fuck all the Luke Watson haters too. That guy is a man among men. Where a traditional SA rugby captain is required to say, “Ja no, we gotta play the game in their half and get front-foot ball,” Luke has rather a tougher task.
In a recent EWN interview he was asked what it was like to get death threats at age six and in the same breath to explain why he said he wanted to vomit on the Bok jersey.
Luke’s ill-considered vomit-on-the-jersey and “Dutchmen” statements made him an object of derision for many Bok fans, though. His being parachuted into the Bok team in 2007 was a poisonous act that reflected poorly on all involved. Watson probably shouldn’t have accepted – another blot on his record as far as the rugby die-hards are concerned.
While he has owned those utterances and apologized for them, he remains reviled among rugby’s political dinosaurs and a target of proxy racism at a time when the real thing is frowned upon.
This guy chose to return from a sweet set-up in Bath where he was hailed for his play and had no political role, to come home to help build a franchise from the ground up and try transform our most reluctant sporting code.
This isn’t a Luke Watson story. But it’s a story of underdogs getting a chance and taking it. It’s PE’s personal Mighty Ducks tale.
Of course, all the Kings have really done is beat the kakkest team in the competition. At our home stadium. A real achievement would be making mid-table, perhaps bettering another SA team like the Cheetahs and avoiding the promo-relegation play-off.
But as I type this, the Southern Kings are top of the SA conference and life is good.
I was there on the concrete slabs at Boet Erasmus in the Eighties watching Schalk Burger Snr’s Eastern Province campaign in the B division, when Garth Wright was hot, young prospect. When Gavin Cowley lost out to Naas for the Boks. China Bell on the wing using judo throws to tackle. George Rautenbach was moering okes in the line-out, and “Pass vir Danie” was our game plan. We never seemed to get promoted. I’d never heard of Cheeky Watson, but he made the paper when the Watsons’ house burnt down. No one could explain to an ignorant lightie like me exactly why. Meanwhile Danie’s EP made the Currie Cup semi once or twice and lost every time.
Then in 1995 we had a miraculous season and qualified for the Super 10. We lost every match there, got relegated from the competition and sank into utter obscurity and playing and administrative kakness.
We blatantly failed at the professional era.
Mirroring the playing situation, PE locals leave town for work. With EP out of the Currie Cup and Super Rugby for almost two decades, I’ve found myself trying to support by turns the Sharks, the Stormers, and the Lions. But to be honest, my heart hasn’t been in it.
That a new regime has been able to resurrect my old team from tragic mediocrity, to assemble an administration and a playing squad that can compete and win in the greatest rugby league of them all, fills me with… Well, as I said, with pride and fuck you.