Isuzu Southern Kings. Picture: Marc Sing Key
Isuzu Southern Kings. Picture: Marc Sing Key

Can a dose of business savvy finally bring sanity to the madhouse that has been Eastern Cape rugby? Nine months after buying control of the Isuzu Southern Kings — the region’s professional rugby franchise — partners in a business called the Greatest Rugby Company in the Whole Wide World say they want to end years of rugby hurt.

They hope the creation of a local team that can compete successfully in international competitions, and the reinstatement of a rugby development pathway that allows promising players to stay in the province, will harness the Eastern Cape’s apparently bottomless well of rugby talent.

Administrators call the province the "cradle" of black rugby. Every weekend during the season, thousands of black players — franchise chair Loyiso Dotwana puts the number at about 30,000 — representing hundreds of clubs, sprint down the wings or fling their bodies into bone-crunching tackles. Some pitches may be little more than ploughed fields, and team kits more mix than match, but that doesn’t matter. This is their game. A lucky few can dream of making it their career.

That dream, however, rarely relates to the Eastern Cape. East London’s Border Bulldogs and the Eastern Province (EP) Elephants, based in Port Elizabeth (PE), both play in the lower tier of SA’s main domestic competition, the Currie Cup. In more than 125 years of trying, neither has won the tournament.

Historically, EP (the "Elephants" moniker is a relatively recent addition) was the senior, better-resourced team. More recently, however, the Eastern Province Rugby Union (EPRU) has become synonymous with

Isuzu Southern Kings. Picture: Marc Sing Key
Isuzu Southern Kings. Picture: Marc Sing Key

maladministration.

In 2013, then union president and Kings chair Cheeky Watson declared: "Five years from now, we’ll be one of the top franchises in Super Rugby.

"In 10 years, we’ll be the biggest franchise in world rugby."

Since then, the Kings have been dropped from Super Rugby, liquidated and become the whipping boys of the northern hemisphere Guinness Pro14 competition. Watson resigned after national body SA Rugby took control of the union and the Kings when they went bankrupt.

The EPRU came out of administration in mid-2018 and SA Rugby sold 74% of the Kings to the Greatest Rugby consortium in March this year. The EPRU holds the other 26%.

Given the history, it’s no surprise that pursuing a rugby career in the province has rarely been an option for the most talented players.

Springbok skipper Siya Kolisi and teammates Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi, all part of the recent World Cup-winning team, are from the Eastern Cape. So, coincidentally, are head coach Rassie Erasmus and backline coach Mzwandile Stick.

All three black players went to local schools and played age-group rugby for EP or Border before leaving for other provinces.

The region has also produced several other SA-based Springbok players, such as Elton Jantjies and Curwin Bosch. Outside SA, EP-bred players are making careers with top professional sides in New Zealand, Australia, France, England, Ireland and Scotland.

The exodus can start early. Grant Griffith, head coach at Dale College, one of the province’s top rugby schools, says young players are poached as soon as they show promise. Headmaster Garth Shaw says big KwaZulu-Natal schools, in particular, are "incredibly aggressive". Scouts are active both at interschool matches and provincial schoolboy tournaments.

Loyiso Dotwana. Picture: Richard Huggard/Gallo Images
Loyiso Dotwana. Picture: Richard Huggard/Gallo Images

For families on tight budgets, the offer of bursaries and other benefits can be irresistible. "We can’t match them," says Shaw.

It’s not just money. Other provincial rugby unions have rugby academies and high-performance centres that allow schoolboys to transition to senior rugby and senior players to become professionals.

There is no such development pathway in the Eastern Cape. "The sooner we get a proper academy, the sooner we’ll stop the player drain," says Griffith.

The new Isuzu Southern Kings owners say this is one of their priorities. With the EPRU, they are looking for corporate sponsors. The presence of Isuzu SA as team name sponsor is critical to their plan. The PE-based truck-maker brings recognisable industrial muscle to the mix.

MD Michael Sacke says: "Rugby is part of the fabric of the Eastern Cape. For whatever has gone on before it’s easy to sit back and blame others. We prefer to fix it, to be part of the solution."

Dotwana is founder of engineering specialist Iliso Consulting. Deputy chair Rory Stear is CEO of solar company Blackwood Power. In an interview, they tell the FM that while they and their consortium partners have taken on the challenge for sporting reasons — "we want a team that everyone in this region can be proud of and aspire to play for" — it will be run on business principles.

So while they don’t expect immediate returns on the R70m they have budgeted this season, they foresee longer-term success.

"The Kings franchise has been losing money for years, so we’re not going to turn it around in one day," says Stear.

Money isn’t all that’s been lost. The Kings are the weakest team in the Pro14, where they play club and provincial teams from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy.

With the Free State Cheetahs, they were welcomed into the competition after both were dropped from southern hemisphere Super Rugby. But while the Cheetahs are valid contenders, the Kings have been serial losers.

This is their third season in Pro14 and they have won only a handful of games. Significantly, however, they recently won their first match away from PE, beating the Welsh side Ospreys.

We want a team that everyone in this region can be proud of and aspire to play for
Loyiso Dotwana

Dotwana hopes the result will be a turning point. He says head coach Robbie Kempson and his team have worked hard on conditioning and self-belief. They have also been ruthless in selecting a squad since the new owners came in.

Altogether 19 players were axed at the end of last season. Many of the new squad were signed from other provinces. The group also includes Jerry Sexton, younger brother of Irish flyhalf Johnny, a former world rugby player of the year.

Dotwana hopes the Kings will become a choice for more northern hemisphere players seeking an SA experience as part of their rugby education. Though the number of outside players in the squad is unfortunate, says Stear, it’s necessary in the short term. That’s why the consortium wants an academy — to identify, retain and train local talent for the future.

Dotwana believes a new salary-cap initiative announced by SA Rugby — limiting the amount provinces and franchises can spend on player salaries — will help the Kings retain players.

Squad members now are almost all on extended contracts. In the past, many had short-term deals to meet the team’s, and their own, immediate needs.

As with the financial model, Dotwana says playing progress has to be slow and steady. He will be satisfied if the Kings can reach the Pro14 semifinals within five years, as long as improvement is sustainable.

The Kings can’t change the fortunes of Eastern Cape rugby on their own. It requires partnerships with others. So it’s no surprise the rugby community was devastated after the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality failed to nominate PE for a game during the 2021 British and Irish Lions tour to SA.

Though SA Rugby eventually entrusted the city with a game, EPRU president Andre Rademan says the municipality’s inactivity was inexcusable. "Everyone has worked so hard to put EP rugby back on a sound footing — then, when an opportunity like this comes up, we nearly blow it. It’s no wonder no-one trusts this region."

Since coming out of administration, the EPRU has cleared its debts — "we had R31 in the bank when I took over", says Rademan — and regained SA Rugby voting rights.

Rademan hopes the Kings will eventually return to union control — something the consortium has no plans to facilitate. He recognises that a successful Kings team will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of EP rugby.

What it means:

The Kings' new owners hope to reinstate a development pathway that will allow the province to retain top rugby talent

Though he’s unhappy about the presence of so many non-EP players, Rademan accepts that it’s inevitable for now.

"Club rugby here is mostly amateur," he says. "You can’t take a player from [here] and expose him unprepared to Pro14 rugby, which is tougher than Super Rugby. You’d kill him."

The EP Elephants and Currie Cup first division are a more realistic target. Like the Kings, the Elephants have not covered themselves in glory in the recent past. Rademan thinks they need at least four more years before they can challenge to win the division.

The loss of Super Rugby status at the end of the 2016 season was "devastating" to Eastern Cape rugby, he says. "We lost the core of our rugby. It was nearly fatal to this union."

If the Isuzu Southern Kings can fill that gap, it will be to everyone’s benefit — even if many people don’t yet realise it.

There is resentment among some clubs at R70m being spent on one elite team while scores of smaller ones exist on handouts. It doesn’t help that while Kings home matches attract 2,000-3,000 spectators, black club matches can draw up to 10,000.

"People here don’t identify yet with the Kings," says Rademan. "Maybe when they start winning regularly, that will change."