Unloved and Unfancied Kings to enter the big time

No newcomer to Super Rugby has been as unfancied or unloved as the Southern Kings from South African coastal city Port Elizabeth.

They will make their debut in the 15-team southern hemisphere provincial championship on Saturday against Australian visitors Western Force at the 2010 football World Cup venue Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

And while the side captained by experienced No 8 and former Springbok Luke Watson are sure to be cheered on to the field as the eastern Cape gets its first taste of Super XV fare, many South Africans will not back the Kings.

They do not support the ‘boardroom’ promotion of the side at the expense of the Johannesburg-based Golden Lions, who were dumped after finishing bottom of the South African Conference last season.

Nor is 29-year-old Watson popular among Afrikaners, who form a large part of the rugby support base, after criticising their alleged dominance of the sport and the green-and-gold Springbok jersey they cherish.

Watson later publicly apologised for saying the jersey was a symbol of apartheid that he could “get sick on”, but many beyond the eastern Cape have neither forgiven nor forgotten him.

Kings were promoted to Super Rugby despite not being strong enough to compete in the first tier of the domestic Currie Cup – they won the second division only to be crushed by the Free State Cheetahs in a two-leg promotion play-off.

Elevation to Super Rugby follows years of pressure on the national rugby union from the South African government to bring top-class competition to the eastern Cape, where the majority of black players are based.

But the Kings’ starting line-up against the Force contains only one black, hooker Bandise Maku, who was born in the eastern Cape and arrived in Port Elizabeth via the Bulls and the Lions.

Kings director of rugby Alan Solomons said: “Black stars like Akona and Odwa Ndungane, Lwazi Mvovo and Siya Kolisi were forced to join other franchises because the eastern Cape did not offer opportunities.”

The debutants only got the green light six months ago to compete in Super Rugby this season, giving Solomons and New Zealand-born head coach Matt Sexton little chance to woo stars.

Ironically, none of the overseas signings – scrum-half Nicolas Vergallo and loose forward Tomas Leonardi from Argentina and full-back Hadleigh Parkes from New Zealand – make the run-on team against the Force.

Only Watson, former Sharks lock Steven Sykes, Maku and ex-Cheetahs centre Andries Strauss boast considerable Super XV experience and 18-year-old left wing Sergeal Petersen comes straight from schools rugby.

“Whether you have 100 games under your belt or one – it is all about wearing your heart on your sleeve,” stressed Watson, who spent several seasons at English Premiership outfit Bath.

“You must start somewhere and there is no doubt that our young players have the ability to step up. This is a very exciting time for all of us and we cannot wait to get going.”

After the Force, the Kings host 2012 runners-up Sharks and champions the Chiefs on successive weekends before heading for New Zealand, where their first opponents are star-stacked seven-time title-holders Canterbury Crusaders.

A demanding start for a team most pundits believe are doomed to finish bottom of the South African Conference and face a home-and-away promotion play-off against the Lions.

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