/ 15 March 2013

Super rugby: Can Kings really rule?

Super Rugby: Can Kings Really Rule?

A month into the Super Rugby season and the honeymoon is drawing to an end for the Southern Kings. The first weekend was an all-Australian affair, the second featured a win on debut against the Western Force, the third was a bye and the fourth brought a narrow defeat to the Sharks. This Saturday, however, the Kings have to find a way to keep it tidy against the Chiefs.

The defending champions showed their lethal finishing ability against the Stormers. The Waikato franchise has never been one to repect reputations and even in the days when the team lost more games than they won they had a habit of embarrassing the big boys. Now that they have added consistency to flair, the Chiefs are the real deal.

The question to be asked is whether the same can be said of the Kings. The harsh criticism that surrounded their admittance in the first place has been kept in abeyance thus far, but it will not last long past a few one-sided encounters. To date, coach Matt Sexton has not been asked to look beyond the thrill of the new and an organised defence; soon that will end.

Against the Force the Kings were down at half-time and visibly shaky in front of a crowd that expected far more of the team than the players felt they had to give. A few things went their way in the second half and the dream start duly arrived with a win against foreign opposition. Moreover, the Kings discovered a new and home-grown star in Sergeal Petersen, a winger just three months out of Grey High School.

After a week to take it all in, the critics were sharpening their knives again, for clearly the Force were poor and obviously the Kings would meet their Waterloo against the Sharks.

Try famine
It did not happen for several reasons. Firstly, the much fancied Sharks have hit an early psychological barrier. They were involved in a war of attrition against the Stormers the previous week and the dazzling talents among the back line have now failed to cross their opponents' line for almost 200 minutes.

Much of the try famine is because of the familiarity that is part and parcel of conference play. The Sharks play the Stormers and Western Province half a dozen times a year and each knows what to expect of the other. That is not the case with the Kings, a new franchise, but two former Sharks in the home side's ranks knew exactly how to make their former colleagues' lives a misery.

Andries Strauss is the defensive co-ordinator in the back line for the Kings. The former Free Stater spent five seasons with the Sharks and at 28 he is now the master of his own game. Never blessed with exceptional speed, he has needed to develop a more cerebral game to compete at this level. He made sure that the structure held in broken play and that no one dashed out of the formation under pressure.

Up front, the Kings' pack leader is Steven Sykes, who played for the Sharks for seven seasons after leaving Marlow Agricultural College. Sykes is the epitome of the professional South African rugby player: hard as nails, drilled in the basics of the game and intensely loyal.

Sykes left the Sharks at the end of last season as a marquee signing by the Kings. There was no bad blood between the two franchises, however, as Sykes explained to his employer that he was needed back on the farm. The Sykes family farm is near Cradock, the town where Marlow is situated.

Competitive rugby
As he approaches the end of his 20s, Sykes is aware that there is a life beyond rugby and the move to the Kings presented him with an opportunity to prepare for retirement from the game.

The two-and-a-half-hour drive from Port Elizabeth to Cradock will test his commitment. But a generation ago Henry Honiball was accustomed to a similar routine, driving from the family farm in Bergville to Durban and back four times a week to train and play. Sykes is cut from similar cloth as the legendary Sharks and Springbok flyhalf.

Management at the Kings imagines a time when Sykes would never have left the Eastern Cape in the first place. They want to keep the talent that every year pours out of the likes of Grey High, Dale and Queen's College.

In the short term, however, they have been forced to be pragmatic and try to piece together a competitive rugby team from what's available to them.

A new academy at the franchise is hoping to churn out more Sergeal Petersens under the watchful eye of former Bok prop Robbie Kempson. There is talent aplenty in the Kings' under-20 squad and with Petersen's two-try debut fresh in the mind, it's certain that the youngsters will get their chance sooner rather than later.

The Kings enjoyed the luxury of naming an unchanged team this weekend to take on the Chiefs, but on Sunday they will have to pack their bags for the Antipodes. Time for a few boys to become men, then.