Cheetahs and Kings clash in emotional Super Rugby finale
Teams will be rivals in a new tournament
The Southern Kings and Cheetahs‚ by the quirk of Super Rugby’s draw‚ which is calculated at great cost by a Canadian company‚ have inevitably been pitted together in their final matches of the season.
When the draw was done no one knew that it would also be both teams’ final fling in Super Rugby. But now that the two have been culled from the tournament as from 2018‚ Friday’s clash is Nelson Mandela Bay is a farewell to both teams.
Or is it the start of a new rivalry in a new competition?
The two sides have not been cast off without an alternative. They will feature in the northern hemisphere’s Pro 12 tournament in 2018‚ which it is hoped will provide enough broadcast income to sustain both franchises as going concerns.
The Kings‚ after some stirring performances this season‚ which included a historic win over the Bulls at Loftus last week‚ are going out of Super Rugby with a bang. They have won six games‚ tripling the number they won in 2016‚ to underline how they have grown as a team.
The Cheetahs by contrast have played like a team heading to the gallows for most of the season. Their exit from Super Rugby has been with a whimper and a hint of self-pity.
Of the two‚ the Kings can feel most aggrieved by their exit considering their trajectory has been upward this season. They have the foundation of a good team led by an underrated coaching staff.
Journeymen players such as flyhalf Lionel Cronjé‚ prop Ross Geldenhuys‚ wing Alshaun Bock and flank Chris Cloete have risen to the challenge and become game winners.
Cloete will join Munster next season while Cronjé‚ once seen as a future Bok before injuries and personal issues took him off track‚ has played so well he started for SA A against the French Barbarians in June.
Coach Deon Davids has also unearthed some fine talent such as wings Yaw Penxe and Makazole Mapimpi and SA A No8 Andile Ntsila.
A large part of the reason for the Kings’ success is that they have embraced change‚ rather than moping about their lot.
"It has been a roller-coaster ride for the franchise for a number of seasons but there is now a clear and viable way forward for rugby in the Eastern Cape to build on the foundations that have been laid – particularly in the past season‚" Eastern Province Rugby Union president Andre Rademan said.
"We have enjoyed Super Rugby but the chance to test ourselves against different opposition in different conditions is a mouth-watering one."
Much has been made of their respective ejections from Super Rugby‚ but in the long run‚ playing in a less taxing tournament in terms of travel and to a lesser extent‚ depth of opposition strength‚ is positive.
The Cheetahs have a fine coach in Franco Smith‚ who showed his value as the Boks’ attacking coach in June.
But the franchise itself has become so bogged down in Super Rugby mediocrity that a change of tournament could just be the boost it needs.
As a stand-alone franchise since 2006 (when the Cats were unbundled) the Cheetahs have won a meagre 53 of 175 Super Rugby matches‚ or 30.3%‚ while they have suffered 119 defeats with three draws. They have only reached the play-offs once — in 2013 — and managed nine wins outside SA in 41 games.
They have always underperformed and with each passing year the desperation to be better has inevitably led to more pressure and more failure.
Playing in a new tournament must be taken as an opportunity to start with a clean slate and drop Super Rugby’s mental baggage.