Glimmer of Hope as Elephants Re-emerge From the Wilderness

By BET Contributor

The Preparation Series will usher in a new era for Eastern Province rugby, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.

The Kings are dead. Long live the Elephants.

Despite being a hotbed of raw rugby talent, the Eastern Province region had long been neglected by SA Rugby and left to its own devices. How damning that proved to be. The poisonous presence of Cheeky Watson and his abuse of power as president ate at the union for years and eventually brought it to its deathbed.

SA Rugby’s “quick fix” was to help establish a franchise and facilitate its fast-track into Super Rugby, at the Lions’ expense. The Southern Kings won just three, drew one and lost 12 matches to finish their maiden Super Rugby season dead last in 2013.

There were glimpses of promise, however. Their epic win over the Western Force in their first-ever Super Rugby fixture was not only historic but looking back, will live on in lore as the doomed franchise’s greatest day. The new kids on the block vanquished their vaunted visitors 22-10 with an impassioned performance in Port Elizabeth, with teenage wing Sergeal Petersen becoming an overnight sensation following his two-try heroics, which earned him the Man of the Match award.

On their maiden voyage Down Under, they claimed another Australian scalp when they edged the Melbourne Rebels 30-27 and, once back home, they beat the Highlanders 34-27. Making such a drastic leap into the deep end of the shark-infested Super Rugby waters, they were always going to struggle. Their win-loss record was, thus, not surprising, nor the be-all and end-all of the new outfit.

However, from its genesis, the franchise failed at the core objective it was founded upon – to be the leading force of transformation in South African rugby. The franchise was meant to be the pathway for rough diamonds in the region to finally be afforded the opportunity to test their skills at Super Rugby level.

It was supposed to showcase these diamonds in the rough, not serve as a retreat centre for journeymen bought by blood. Those discarded by other local franchises flocked to Port Elizabeth, where the likes of Argentine duo Tomás Leonardi and Nicolás Vergallo, Frenchman Virgile Lacombe and New Zealander Hadleigh Parkes also formed part of the inaugural squad.

Exciting flyer Petersen, fresh out of high school, was the only real find of the first frontier. So much for the franchise’s supposed mission statement. This was the greatest disappointment of the maiden season, which came crashing down with the Kings losing their Super Rugby status to the Lions, who edged the two-match promotion/relegation series between the sides 44-42 on aggregate.

After going 2-13 and finishing 17th in their return to Super Rugby in 2016, the following season proved their most successful – and ironically – their last in the tournament. The developing outfit won six of their 15 fixtures and finished 11th, but it was in vain as they were axed along with the Cheetahs and the Force with Super Rugby reverting to its 15-team format.

Their inclusion in the expanded PRO14 in 2017, along with the Cheetahs, was nothing more than prolonged punishment, with the Kings winning just three of their 45 matches. All the while, the franchise continued to be plagued by poor governance and financial mismanagement. Eastern Province rugby was finally freed of Watson in 2017, but the damage had already been done.

From there, broken promises by the ironically named Greatest Rugby Company in the Whole Wide World, who’d vowed to resurrect the franchise, and the devastating impact of the Covid-19 pandemic led to it being placed into voluntary liquidation last September.

The shareholders – the Eastern Province Rugby Union and SA Rugby – announced they decided in the face of an accumulated deficit of R55-million. “The history of the Kings has been one of expectation and anticipation but unfortunately the parallel story of commercial failure couldn’t be wished away any longer,” said Mark Alexander, president of SA Rugby.

“The debts the organisation has accumulated over the years are considerable and in the current environment, the only certainty was that they would grow. The membership of SA Rugby has invested heavily in the Kings project but it is now time for a re-examination of what is the appropriate and sustainable pathway for rugby in the Eastern Province,” he added.

And so, Eastern Province rugby had officially hit rock bottom, the union’s home base – the state-of-the-art, multi-million-rand Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium – turned into a boulevard of broken dreams. Many of the players and staff were left destitute, to the point that a campaign called Care4Kings was launched to help them support their families.

From the ashes rose the real essence of Eastern Province rugby…the Elephants. Their inclusion in the hastily arranged Preparation Series offers the union a new lease on life. After over a year of inactivity due to the pandemic, they’ll enter a new era when they take on the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Sunday.

In terms of a fresh start, this is as fresh as it gets, complete with a new coach and new squad. Peter de Villiers has the motivation, passion and understanding of what his role entails. The first Springbok coach of colour grasps the bigger picture.

“Being the coach of EP poses the opportunity for us to actually unite a divided community into one support group that is behind the team that is supposed to be one of the best in the country,” De Villiers said when he was revealed as the Elephants’ new mentor in December.

“It is going to be a challenge but with the input of all stakeholders, we will be able to reach our goal. My plan for the union is that I need a lot of support from all the stakeholders to build bridges and to get the right personnel together and make sure that everybody understands what the collective goal is. I will work hard to make sure we achieve our goals,” he added.

In his first head coaching job at senior level in South Africa in a decade, rebuilding will be De Villiers’ main task. Doing so successfully would prove his coaching acumen once and for all. He enjoyed early success as Springbok boss, leading them to a series win over the British & Irish Lions and the Tri-Nations crown in 2009, a golden year that included three wins over the All Blacks.

However, there’s a general sense that De Villiers’ early success had more to do with the World Cup-winning squad and game plan he’d inherited from predecessor Jake White, who he’ll cross swords with this weekend, than what he brought to the table. Some players who formed part of that squad have since substantiated this school of thought, describing De Villiers as more of a man-manager than a tactical mastermind.

De Villiers’ four-year term as Springbok coach ended with a controversial 11-9 loss to Australia in their World Cup quarter-final clash in Wellington in 2011 and whether fairly or unfairly, he’s generally remembered for his “Snorisms” (colourful quotes) rather than his actual coaching contributions or win ratio (62.5%).

“Div” has done little since, which he puts down to being “blacklisted.” He coached the University of Western Cape from 2013 to 2015 before taking the reins of Zimbabwe in 2018, a rocky rugby marriage that ended in an ugly divorce just a year later. With a blank canvas to work with, Port Elizabeth presents the now 63-year-old an opportunity to set the record straight.

Likewise, the new dawn offers a lifeline for Inny Radebe, one of just two names most fans will recognise in the squad, the other being up-and-coming loose forward CJ Velleman, who’s returned from a loan spell at Griquas. Radebe was highly rated before a serious knee injury brought his time at the Sharks to a screeching halt and a failed move to the Lions in 2018 seemed to be the end of a promising career before it truly began.

Like De Villiers, Radebe felt disenfranchised and became bitter. In 2019, he released a “diss track” which included hard-hitting lyrics like “I fell victim to a system that was so corrupted; all these unions and them agents, they cannot be trusted…You still don’t pick me, starting to think it’s ’cause I’m f*cken black.”

Not the most endearing words, but Radebe’s refusal to give up on his dream and maturity since dropping that notorious track should be applauded. He’s owned up to the mistakes he made that played a part in his derailed career and is determined to make the most of a second act that had long looked unattainable.

De Villiers is certainly high on the now 26-year-old, appointing him as captain and comparing him to two of the best flyhalves the sport has ever known. “Inny, to my mind, is a natural talent, whose opportunities were taken away. I hope that this competition will open the public’s eyes to see that we also have a Dan Carter or a Johnny Wilkinson in our country but we just need to use him. You must be mad if you don’t use some of his experience and what he’s been through, and not use him as a leader in the team,” said the outspoken De Villiers.

Optimism is in the air again in the Eastern Cape, but context should curb expectations. It would be unfair to De Villiers and his crop of unknowns to expect results in the Preparation Series aka Franchise Cup. They’re grossly undercooked, while the other seven sides are coming off back-to-back Super Rugby Unlocked and Currie Cup campaigns, and frankly have no depth to speak of.

They’ll be cannon fodder for the next few weeks, no two ways about it. Expecting anything else is unrealistic. What the Franchise Cup represents for Eastern Province rugby is an opportunity to do things right – to expose exciting local talent to top-flight rugby and develop them into the next Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi to name just a few Springbok stars with roots in the region.

It’s crucial for the growth of the game in South Africa that Eastern Province rugby returns to prominence. Laying the foundation for future success is De Villiers and the class of 2021s’ mission. Supporters shouldn’t be short-sighted.

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