The new season of Super Rugby is just about finding its feet, but in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, preparations are already well underway for 2013.
South Africa’s five franchises are still at loggerheads with the South African Rugby Union over who will make way for the Kings come 2013 – with SANZAR recently stating that commercial deals are in place for the 15-team format until 2015 which puts to bed any hope of South Africa boasting six sides next year. But while they are vying for top-table supremacy, the Kings are going about their business in a quiet, measured and ruthlessly efficient manner.
When former Western Province and Stormers boss Alan Solomons arrived at the Southern Kings in June 2010 on a permanent contract – after coaching them against the British Irish Lions in 2009 – he was greeted by a set-up that would be deemed anachronistic in the semi-professional rugby scene in England. And Solomons, under the guidance of president Cheeky Watson – also faced the task of bringing together the three constituent unions in the Eastern Province – the Eastern Province Kings, South Western Districts and Borders – together with a view to building a competitive and sustainable Super Rugby franchise.
But 18 months since, and as their defence coach De Wet Barry has said – the transformation is akin to ‘night and day.’
Solomons told ESPNscrum: “The main union is the Eastern Province so the important thing was to get the rugby right there first. I also found that from a rugby structural point of view there was no performance analyst department, there was no strength and conditioning department. The medical department was part time and there was not an extensive coaching department.
“So we’ve put in a performance analyst department headed up by Theunis Steenkamp – formerly of Western Province and Stormers – with three analysists under him – so that section is sorted. For the strength and conditioning department I brought in Phil Mack who has worked with the Stormers, Western Province, Ulster, Brumbies and Leicester and he has two assistants – one who works with the academy and one who works with the senior team.
“We have a full time physiotherapist and a part-time doctor – so those departments are now in existence. We used not to have an academy – we now have an academy which started in November 2010. It is run by Robbie Kempson who played for me at the Province, Stormers and Ulster and they are assisted by the Eastern Cape Academy of Sport who provide a strength and conditioning man – so that’s been set up. And then we have brought in former Springbok De Wet Barry as defence coach.”
While the behind-the-scenes side of the club appears to be on the right track, Solomons now faces the task of building a side able to compete in Super Rugby. And since Solomons arrived at the Kings, just three players remain with Norman Nelson only one of the original bunch still considered a first stringer.
But Solomons will be able to benefit from having seen the Western Force and the Melbourne Rebels’ tactics in terms of recruitment in recent times. The Force – who joined Super Rugby in 2006 – opted to recruit from within Australia while the Rebels opted for a more scattergun approach to assembling a squad with a side consisting of veterans, established internationals, misfits and up and coming players.
However, one huge asset that Solomons is able to utilise is the vast talent pool within the Eastern Cape. With this in mind, he has established the academy with the hope that it will pay dividends in the future.
“Our academy is going to be how we are going to transform this place,” Solomons said. “Eight of our academy players have been awarded junior contracts and playing against a full-strength Sharks side we had Shane Gates starting at fly-half with Rynier Bernardo at lock, Siya Mangaliso at loose-forward cover and Thembelani Bholi also at loose-forward cover so we’ve had four lads who were in the academy last year and are now playing against internationals.
“That’s a process that takes time.
“At the moment we have nine or ten players who are contracted to the side until 2013 and Super Rugby. We then recruit through three sources. We have to assess the players in the three unions at the moment and decide which of them can step up to Super Rugby. The second source is South African’s who are playing abroad and come off their contracts in June and the third is domestic South African players who come off contract in June.”
One man who may be on Solomons’ radar is Springboks centre Francois Steyn. Alongside Schalk Burger and Odwa Ndungane, Steyn was one of the three Eastern Cape representatives in the Springboks’ squad for the recent World Cup. The Eastern Cape has a rich heritage of success with former Bath flanker Luke Watson at the forefront of their brave new dawn. Solomons is hopeful that more players will follow in the footsteps of Watson and return to the province.
“Our recruitment policy is ‘bring them and keep them home.’ In Super Rugby, 40% of South Africans come out of the Eastern Cape. But they’ve never had a home to go to; they’ve never had an aspirational club. If you look at the current Sharks side – you’ve got Lwazi Mvovo and Odwa Ndungane who are both from the Cape. Ryan Kankowski is from St Andrews, Keegan Daniel – from Border and Stephen Sykes is also a local boy – so five of them are our players.”
With recruitment well underway and the backroom side of the club seemingly established, the Kings are clearly here to stay. Watson’s father Cheeky Watson is one of the most influential people in South African rugby and he is a key protagonist in the Kings’ rise. Solomons has bought into Watson senior’s vision of establishing a side for the region with individuals from all manner of backgrounds, religion and race finding a home at the Kings.
“This is the cradle of black rugby in South Africa from when I was a boy,” Solomons said. “The black guys love rugby and cricket in this region. You have the traditional schools where their teams are 70 or 80% black and they’re fantastic teams and before they had nowhere to go and were forced to go to other unions which doesn’t work – it’s the equivalent of transporting your heart into my body – it just doesn’t take.
“And now they have a home. On our practise field there is a mix of Xhosa, English and Afrikaans and it’s all under one umbrella at the Kings.”
It is apparent that there is a small revolution occurring in the Eastern Cape and in South Africa’s brave new dawn under Heyneke Meyer, the Kings will be thrust firmly into the spotlight at their Nelson Mandela Bay home next year. And these are exciting times in the Cape. Solomons is clearly a man who is out to build a legacy at Port Elizabeth rather than seeking short-term reward and if the Kings continue in the manner they have begun, then they are a very welcome addition to Super Rugby.