The Southern Kings have earned their licence to dream. They made friends and entertained people on tour, which was not always the case when franchise rugby was new, around the turn of the millennium.
Results in New Zealand were less kind to the Kings, but even in conceding 55 points to the Crusaders and 46 to the Hurricanes it was apparent that the new boys were capable of scoring tries. They got two against the Crusaders and three against the Hurricanes, before crossing the Tasman Sea and finding their mojo. The drawn game against the log-leading Brumbies in Canberra earned the Kings three points, because they scored four tries.
It might seem that discussing how many tries a side placed 13th in the overall standings has scored is damning it with faint praise, but consider this: the Sharks, third on the log and leading the South African conference, have not crossed their opponents' try line in four of their seven games to date. They scored two against the Cheetahs, one against the Brumbies and 10 against the hapless Rebels. Other than that it has been down to the unerring boot of Pat Lambie.
The Sharks are not mugs. They played in the final last year entirely on merit and have a strong side blessed with a blend of youth and experience. But something is wrong. Clearly there are line-out issues, which draws another parallel with the Kings. The Sharks allowed Steven Sykes to return home to the Eastern Cape, thinking that they had adequate cover in the second row. They were wrong.
Sykes has been a star for the Kings; a model professional who does the hard work as a matter of course and never seeks the spotlight. Another former Shark, Andries Strauss, has also made giant strides since being entrusted with the captaincy. Strauss is in the prime of his career as a player and the fact that he does not carry the political baggage of franchise skipper Luke Watson helped to bring the players together after a poor start to the tour.
Watson will be back this week, when the Kings take on the Bulls at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. He played a full 80 minutes of Vodacom Cup rugby last week and resumes the captaincy. Watson did not tour due to a throat injury sustained in the opening match against the Force. There are some critics who have been unkind enough to suggest that his absence was a blessing in disguise.
Four more points
If the Kings happen to beat the Bulls, the South African conference could look very congested. Currently the Sharks lead it on 26, followed by the Cheetahs and the Bulls on 23, the Stormers on 20 and the Force on 15. The Stormers have a bye, guaranteeing them four more points, and the Sharks host the Cheetahs in Durban.
The Sharks won the first encounter between the two this season, on the first weekend of the tournament in this country, but much has happened since then. The Cheetahs went from no-hopers to conference contenders with five wins in a row and, in defeat, were good enough to earn a bonus point at Loftus last week.
The Sharks have only lost twice –to the Brumbies and the Stormers – but despite their good results there is a suspicion of a house built on sand. Odwa Ndungane looks to be coming to the end of an illustrious career, a troublesome hamstring putting a damper on his touchline surges. Meyer Bosman seems to be filling in while Tim Whitehead battles back from injury and Frans Steyn looks woefully out of place at fullback.
So for all the dynamism of Pieter-Steph du Toit and an all-Springbok back row, the side looks like less than the sum of its parts. There are two ways of looking at that. One is to say that a quality side finds ways to win when it's not playing well. The other is to suggest that either it comes good in spectacular fashion sooner rather than later, or it falls to pieces.
The Cheetahs will provide a stern test. They are strong in areas where the Sharks are weak and Heinrich Brüssow will relish the opportunity to get underneath the upright runners in the Sharks's back row. If Brüssow wins the battle at the breakdowns the Cheetahs may have enough ball to win the game.
Brüssow was the elephant in the room at the end of the first Springbok squad session of the season in Cape Town. Bok coach Heyneke Meyer told the press: "We are going to have a huge drive towards the breakdown and one or two areas later … I am quite excited that we will fix the breakdown and soon [we] will be the best in the world at the breakdown." Meyer sounds as if he is in need of the AA, but he really needs to look no further than the squarely built fellow from Bloemfontein.