Southern Kings deserve more credit
People will never know what it’s like to hail from a so-called ‘Cinderella city’ whose sporting prowess – among other things – is never worthy of any praise from a certain section of the public.
I am referring here to that ‘spot on the map’ Port Elizabeth that nestles on the east coast of South Africa.
The city is positioned within the second biggest province, the Eastern Cape.
The province is no doubt the poorest in South Africa, with poverty at extreme levels and unemployment rife.
However, despite the unfortunate situation and the yawning gaps in wealth made even worse by the reviled apartheid, whose ghosts still have a bearing on people’s economic situation, many resilient Eastern Cape citizens have risen above adversity to excel in their chosen professions.
Siya Kolisi, the bustling Stormers flanker, is one of them.
One day Kolisi was playing rugby for a nondescript township club in Port Elizabeth with borrowed boots.
The next he was donning the blue and white hoops of Western Province.
Kolisi’s path to provincial and Super Rugby fame was not an easy one. His story is well-documented and covered in many magazines and newspapers. At times, he said, there was no food in his home while growing up in the suburb of New Brighton, Port Elizabeth.
He was estranged from his parents at a very young age and was therefore forced to stay with his grandmother, who took on odd jobs as a domestic helper to send him to school.
Most times she could not even make the 50 rand-a-month school fees for Kolisi’s attendance at a township school in New Brighton.
At one stage he had to stop his schooling to look after his grandmother when she fell ill. She later died and Kolisi had to find refuge at an aunt’s home.
Fortunately Kolisi was spotted at a schools’ tournament and awarded a bursary to complete high school at the elite Old Grey High in Port Elizabeth.
Another is former Proteas spearhead Makhaya Ntini, who was a cattle herder in the nondescript Eastern Cape village of Mdingi.
He and his mates played informal games of cricket in their formative years on bumpy pasture fields among the grazing cattle before Ntini found cricketing stardom.
Yes, this province has produced and is still producing great sportspeople, but in Johannesburg, Cape Town and, even Durban, fans still give this city or province grudging respect when any semblance of sporting success comes along.
We are also called the ‘windy city’. We have produced many luminaries, among them Nelson Mandela. We have also produced 2010 Football World Cup trailblazer Danny Jordaan, and former ICC cricket chief Haroon Lorgat.
Never mind that we have produced rugby players of the ilk of Mark Andrews, Rassie Erasmus, Garth Wright, Lwazi Mvovo, Deon Kayser and many others.
And Fabian Juries, the former rugby sevens player who at one stage was the second highest points scorer in sevens history.
Not to forget former assistant Springbok coach Allister Coetzee, who now coaches the Stormers.
Cricketers such as Graeme Pollock, Ashwell Prince, Alviro Petersen, Johan Botha and other Eastern Capers, Mark Boucher and Ntini.
Yesterday Port Elizabeth hosted another of the Ironman Triathlon International series, and we also have a world-class multi-purpose venue in Nelson Mandela Bay stadium.
I of course reluctantly use the moniker ‘Cinderella city’ or ‘province’ but this is a tag often foisted upon us by our counterparts up north and in the west.
I say Cinderella province no more. Windy city maybe, but no speck on the map either.
However it’s rugby I want to focus on.
Local rugby fans in my province have had to mull over an ‘if only’ scenario for many years before Super Rugby came knocking and the stakeholders answered.
If only we had the sponsors. If only we could keep our players. If only we had the administrators. If only we had buy-in from th South African Rugby Union (SARU).
The list is endless.
Then the Southern Kings came along.
Our dreams have come true.
We were promised a Super Rugby franchise as far back as a decade ago. Fans, especially the disadvantaged, suffered because of the promises made with little or no delivery afterwards.
Eastern Cape is known as ‘the home of black rugby’ after all. And despite this moniker, rugby authorities did us no favours.
The SARU dilly-dallied on the Super Rugby issue for many years – before granting us what seemed like a wildcard into Super Rugby in the middle of last year.
In all likelihood they were forced to do so, as any decision to the contrary would have had legal ramifications for the national body.
The rugby-loving public from this part of the Eastern Cape province had no faith in the SARU (and who could blame them after all the foot-dragging?) and despite the announcement of Kings’ participation many adopted an approach of: “if we see it we’ll believe it.”
Many fans believed that the SARU would have done anything to renege on their undertaking that big-time rugby would return to these parts in 2013.
They had promised before but not delivered. And fans’ were worried as to how national administrators expected the Southern Kings to put a team together in Super Rugby with only seven months to the start of the new season?
What about putting together sponsorships, coaches and management teams?
Mention should be made of The Natal Sharks – who now have built up a well-oiled rugby machine. One can only be in awe of the marketing nous that drives the union.
But we in the Eastern Province remember our days in the B Section of the Currie Cup in the 70s and 80s.
The Natalians, more often than not, received a thrashing from us in those years.
So they have morphed into a giant on the national and Super Rugby scene, due to their professionalism and getting the right administrators and players on board.
Surely it is not beyond the realms of possibility for the Southern Kings to achieve that if given the proper chance?
We feel we are unfair victims of the player culling that’s taken place over the years, it just gotten worse in the professional period.
Our players are already poached at Craven Week (U19) level where the big guys with the big cheque books would come scouting for talent in the Eastern Province.
Does anybody know how it feels when you know local players are among the best (as could be seen from the poaching quests and their representing other provinces) but your province continues to remain in the doldrums at Currie Cup and Super Rugby level?
Fans on this side of the divide can’t really care what happens to the Golden Lions rugby union while they mull over future participation in the Super Rugby – remember it’s not yet a given they will be back in 2014 as there’s still a small matter of a promo-relegation match awaiting them!
It is one part of South Africa where die-hard provincialism has its roots and which is at times not good for the game of rugby.
It’s also where the late Louis Luyt ruled with an iron fist.
The Southern Kings have surprised friend and foe so far.
Of course, local fans were worried about what to expect from a new franchise in such a tough competition.
Were they going to cut it, without big-name players? Did they have the squad to measure up?
Did they have the management nous and the support from a public who already support the different Super Rugby franchises?
Now the group of doomsayers, especially Lions supporters and others up north, are having to swallow their pride.
It is also a shame that writers on this forum are in one breath congratulating the Kings and pouring scorn upon them the next.
Unfortunately, Kings’ fans still have to deal with these rubbish comments every day, despite the performances of their team so far. But we won’t be swayed.
Many Southern Kings fans are of the opinion it’s not about winning or losing just yet (of course we’ll take a win like we did against the Rebels).
It is more than that. It’s about competing and putting in a commendable effort at the highest level in our very first season.
Let’s admit it – the odds are stacked against the Kings.
But what we are seeing from their fighting qualities under immense pressure is that there is hope. Lots of it.
Coach Matt Sexton knows that and Alan Solomons does too.
“This is a star team not a team of stars,” crows Solomons.
The character and team spirit displayed by this rookie side has been nothing but impressive.
The Southern Kings came away with the victory in Melbourne at the weekend. They deserve every bit of credit, given their rookie status and seeing as they are first-time travellers.
Yes you doomsayers, they were playing away in unfamiliar territory!
Even David Campese was moved to say that he is taking a liking to this team’s guts and determination after his earlier doubts.
Someone alluded to the fact the Brumbies were not at their best last week in the 28-28 stalemate to the Kings.
I would suggest that the Kings were every bit worth the draw.
People have to recognise that behind these comments is the misguided, childish, warped and unjustified view that anything that comes from Port Elizabeth, and for that matter the Eastern Cape, is not good enough.
I think we played rugby before the guys up north.
I can only bet that the Lions and Bulls fans are not sitting too easily on their perches after what they’ve seen from the Kings.
We, of course, are not expecting the Kings to win every game – who can?
But their effort and commitment and team spirit might just motivate them to a shock victory over the Bulls.
We don’t want to see the team thrashed week in and week out – so the way they have played so far in their first season is an encouraging sign.
Does anyone remember the Bulls’ form when they first entered the competition in the mid-1990s?
Do you remember how the Cheetahs and Lions suffered in their initial digs at the competition?
They have now firmly in their grasp what they have always wanted and deserved. They won’t relinquish it easily.
Expect 40,000 fans at Nelson Mandela Bay stadium this weekend against the Bulls. What a cracker it should be!