Promotion play-offs are a make-or-break for EP rugby
A SUPER Rugby semi-final will be played in Pretoria the next day, but in terms of impact on South African rugby, the most important match next weekend will be one that has been set for Port Elizabeth on Friday, July 26.
There are still movements behind the scenes that could prompt what is becoming an increasingly unlikely change of plan, but the Southern Kings’ home match in a two-game promotion-relegation clash with the Lions at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is already being advertised in the city.
Kings’ acting chief executive Charl Crous has urged fans to turn out in numbers and wear black to identify with the Kings in a game that will be crucial to the survival of the sport in the Eastern Cape.
Seldom in South African rugby history has there been as much on the line as there will be next Friday, given that the winners of the series will take their place in Super Rugby next year and the losers will drop out into the uncertain noman’s land that the Lions inhabited during their season of exclusion.
The second match in the series will be played in Johannesburg the following weekend.
Regardless of what happens, the big loser will be South African rugby.
While the Kings have enjoyed an encouraging debut season and the large multiracial crowds drawn to the stadium have showcased the benefits of having a Super Rugby franchise in that region, it also doesn’t suit the country to have the nation’s biggest city and industrial heartland not represented.
The Lions have fallen on harsh economic times recently, but historically that union has contributed more than its fair share of players to some of South Africa’s finest rugby triumphs, most notably the 1995 World Cup when Kitch Christie and Francois Pienaar were at the helm of a squad dominated by players from the then Transvaal.
Recognition of the damage that will be done to the loser prompted behind the scenes talks between the two franchises over a possible merger, and as recently as the weekend when the Springboks played Southern Kings centre and stand-in captain, Andries Strauss, will miss both promotion-relegation games against the Lions after breaking his hand during practice yesterday. Scotland in Nelspruit in the Incoming Tours Series the possibility of a merger going through was put by an informed source at “90%”.
But what seemed likely has become increasingly unlikely as the details of the merger have been thrashed out, and the almost insurmountable obstacles plus the expectations of the respective parties have led to next week’s game now becoming almost a fait accompli.
It is interesting to note that the promotion- relegation game (7.10pm kick-off) is being advertised as part of a double header also featuring the EP Kings, who will be playing the Boland Cavaliers in a Currie Cup first division match in the curtain-raiser. With the Kings not represented in the domestic premier division, defeat in the promotion-relegation game will condemn their eager supporters to an immediate future where such matches as the one against the Cavaliers become top fare.
That is of course on until 2016, when it is expected that Super Rugby will undergo further expansion and the legitimate demand by South Africa for an additional team in the competition will be answered.
But considering the strides the Kings made in their first season it would be a potentially crippling blow to them if that momentum is broken, although regardless of what happens next Friday it is unlikely that the Kings will have the services of their current director of rugby, Alan Solomons. Although it has been officially denied by Solomons, it is understood he will be heading to Edinburgh later in the year.
GONE: Alan Solomons looks set to leave, no matter what happens in the play-offs. GALLO IMAGES