The Chiefs proved they are going to be tough to knock off their pedestal as champions and the Bulls flexed their muscles impressively, but it was the Southern Kings who provided the talking point of round one of Vodacom Super Rugby for 2013.
Playing the last game of the first full round of Super Rugby, one in which there was some quite staggeringly good rugby played at times, the Kings confounded the critics and the bookies who had made the Western Force such overwhelming favourites by starting their stint in the competition with a victory.
It is debatable whether all South African rugby fans would have celebrated with the Kings. There seems to be a lot of petty-mindedness around when it comes to the Kings, probably because of the political machinations that contributed to them being included in Super Rugby at the expense of the Lions.
In truth, it was a bit crazy that the bookies were giving the Kings a 12 point start in Port Elizabeth. It was only the Western Force they were playing against, and they were playing the game at home. As written in most previews, if the Kings weren’t going to win this game, what match could they expect to win?
But then you also have to ask how often the Lions started a season with a win, and how often during their years in Super Rugby they looked as composed and organised as the Kings did this past weekend? The Kings, with a bye coming up this week, played the game like it was a final, and it will get much tougher for them from here.
You can’t fault their start though, and it would be churlish and unfair to begrudge them their right to celebrate what was a momentous achievement. Remember that while it may only have been the Western Force they were playing against, the Force have at least been a team for a couple of years.
The Kings have only just come together as a team (the EP Kings are not the Southern Kings) and their form in the warm-up games was not something to inspire massive confidence.
It’s early days, and doubtless the Kings’ detractors will get their opportunity later to strike back, but for those who understand just how important the transformation agenda is, and should be, to South African rugby, the scenes at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium should have already vindicated the reasoning behind their inclusion.
At Loftus on Friday night when the Bulls hosted the Stormers the crowd was a huge one, but it was probably 99% white. In Bloemfontein on Saturday, when the Sharks beat the Cheetahs, the small crowd was also made up almost exclusively by one race group. Role forward to the Kings game in Port Elizabeth, and the scenes showed us the sort of racial mix you only get at one other ground, Newlands.
While the Kings have rightly taken some flak for not including as many black players as some would have hoped, the racial representation will surely in time take care of itself if the team is successful and young black players grow up supporting the franchise and having something to aspire to.
There were black faces in the Kings team at the weekend, and they played well, no-one more so than Sergeal Petersen. It was a brave decision to choose an 18-year-old for such an important game, but the youngest South African to make a debut in Super Rugby since 1997 produced an inspiring performance which he capped with two good tries.
So already the Kings have provided a vehicle for the arrival of a potentially great talent we may not otherwise have seen. Full marks to their coach Matt Sexton and director of rugby Alan Solomons for being brave enough to make that call and, in time, provided the Kings are given a chance to build, there should be more Petersens emerging.
It wasn’t a one-man show of course, and there were other players who caught the eye, remembering too that for more than half of the game the Kings were without their impressive captain, Luke Watson, who went off injured after 30 minutes.
Andries Strauss was the hero of a Sharks Currie Cup final win a few years back and he took over the leadership from Watson, and played a big role in ensuring that his team kept their composure. Demetri Catrakilis was the hero of a more recent Currie Cup final in Durban, this time with Western Province the winners, and he showed his former employers at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium that he can also be a match-winner at Super Rugby level.
The Kings have the Sharks visiting them next and that might well be a reality check for them, but already there was enough there to suggest that the Kings have the potential to build if they are given the time to do so. If SA rugby is serious about transformation, the Kings should be given a guaranteed three years in Super Rugby.
Just how tough it will be for the Kings to survive in the upper flight was drummed out on Friday morning, with the weekend starting with a game between the Highlanders and the Chiefs that was of such quality that it was possible to imagine that it was played on a different planet to the rest of the games.
It is true that some of the defending left a bit to be desired, but then it would also be true to say that the defensive mistakes were forced by the exquisite running rugby both teams played, with the Chiefs opening up an early lead, the Highlanders striking back and looking sure winners with half an hour to go, and then the Chiefs running away with it at the end.
There are many who are writing off the Chiefs’ chances of retaining their trophy on the basis that they have lost Sonny Bill Williams, but the spirit of Williams seems to have lived on, for there was no lack of creativity from the Chiefs backs. And they still have to welcome back a few star players from injury, one of them being All Black Richard Kahui.
It would have been a disappointing defeat for the Highlanders, who are many people’s favourites to win the New Zealand conference this year. But even though it was a home defeat they shouldn’t be too dejected as they contributed to a great spectacle.
The Stormers face the Chiefs in a couple of weeks and on the evidence of their defeat to the Bulls they have a lot of work to do before then. Their performance at Loftus was strangely passionless and would have had those who fear that the Currie Cup final win might have been a bad thing as it tends to breed complacency nodding sagely in assumed vindication of their view.
The Bulls spoke afterwards of how their Currie Cup failures last season pinpointed the areas that needed working on, and so did the Sharks after their Bloemfontein win, so maybe there is something in the theory that the domestic trophy can be a poisoned chalice when it comes to the next Super Rugby season.
But like with the Kings, for the Stormers it is still early days, and provided they can quickly come to the realisation that attitude is as important as playing depth when it comes to being in the mix for Super Rugby success, perhaps Friday night was a timely wake-up call.