The Southern Kings have staggered from crisis to crisis for years, failing to pay their players last Super Rugby season, and struggling to field a team this year. Kings beat writer Michael Green talks to Don Rowe about covering South Africa’s most turbulent franchise.
Southern Kings fans have seen enough chaos in the last few years to last a lifetime. The Port Elizabeth Super Rugby franchise seems to be constantly teetering on the brink of extinction, with the South African Rugby Union intervening this year to help sort out its dire money troubles. Its players are at odds with team management. Fans are still waiting for a winning season. They may be waiting a long time.
For Michael Green, a rugby journo from South African daily Die Burger, Kings dramas are part of daily life. He has chronicled the rise and fall of teams, coaches and administrators in the Eastern Cape, and was present through the now-infamous death and rebirth of the the team’s Super Rugby hopes in 2013 through to the present day.
Green has written on rugby since 2002, eleven years before the Kings played their first Super Rugby season. He’s seen it all, and even been a part of it too. From fist fights to bottlings, racism and institutional rebirth, Green possesses some of the most intimate knowledge of rugby in Port Elizabeth. He talked to me about the turbulent history of South Africa’s newest rugby franchise.
When did you begin covering rugby as a journalist?
I started as a sportswriter in 1987 with a newspaper called Beeld and then Die Transvaler in Pretoria, the headquarters of the Bulls. At that stage I obviously was a junior and had to cover club rugby. When the senior writer was ill or drunk or lazy, I had to help out with the Bulls (then called Northern Transvaal). It was still the amateur era, so we watched the training on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and then would file some story about a player who snapped his ankle or whatever.
In 2002 I moved to Port Elizabeth. At that stage there was no Super Rugby here so I covered Eastern Province rugby. The team was called the EP Mighty Elephants, but they played in the First Division, not the top league, the Currie Cup. Eventually in 2009, the Kings played their first match – against the British and Irish Lions. From there on there were some friendlies and odd games and, in 2013, the Kings entered the Super Rugby tournament.
In 2011, the Kings won the IRB Nations Cup, a six-team round robin with teams like Georgia, Namibia, Romania and more. Tell me about that.
I covered the tournament but only from television – the matches were shown live on TV in South Africa – and via e-mail with coach Alan Solomons. By then the Eastern Province Mighty Elephants had become the Eastern Province Kings. The team that went to Bucharest in Romania was an EP Kings side, but it was called the SA Kings. I remember the rugby as very slow, and I remember Siyanda Grey, one of the Kings’ wings scoring a hat-trick in the match against Georgia. The 2013 Super Rugby season was a mixed-bag, with wins over formidable opponents like the Brumbies and Highlanders as well as an ultimately disappointing relegation at the end of the season.
Can you describe that season? What was the mood on the ground after their first-round victory over the Force? How did things change as the end of season approached?
The atmosphere here in Port Elizabeth was amazing that season. Spectators streamed to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium. Coach Alan Solomons didn’t have big names in his team and he kept things simple. “Defend! Defend! Defend!”, that was the chant the spectators shouted. In the first match against the Force, things went the Kings’ way, even the bounce of the ball; Sergeal Petersen scored after a lucky bounce of the ball. The team played their hearts out, but the depth in the squad was so-so and they played predictable rugby, so the other teams soon worked them out.
The Kings played two relegation games with the Lions, dropping the first but winning the second. Their total point aggregate was too low, however, and so regardless of the win, they were relegated.
What was that like? How disappointed were the team? The fans? Did anyone know the next two years would require a total rebuild of the team, including the eventual SARU takeover?
A lot of people still blame the referee for one of the Kings’ losses in one of those matches. The loss was devastating. Behind the scenes the administrators agreed that the Kings, the EP Kings, would be promoted to the Currie Cup from the First Division, and for two years they would play there and rebuild for Super Rugby.
This was agreed to on the condition that the Kings give away their promotion-relegation option, and that they would get entry in this years Super Rugby. Unfortunately, the bulk of the Southern Kings players left, and so did the coach Alan Solomons.
The rebuilding phase never got off the ground for a variety of reasons. One was the coaching. Carlos Spencer, who I really liked, but maybe not as head-coach, was made head coach with two other inexperienced helpers, Michael Horak and Shaun Sowerby. That didn’t work out. Then, last year, the EPRU fell into a financial crisis and players weren’t paid. So eventually SA Rugby had to jump in, belatedly, to rescue the Southern Kings franchise. It’s old news now that the Kings are a month behind with their training and that they are still scrambling to build a team.
What was it like to report during a time of serious upheaval? Did you have to be careful what you wrote in order to ensure continued access to the team? How crazy did things really get?
I’m not sure what upheaval you are referring to, there have been so many. Last year with players not getting paid and some handing over a memorandum to Cheeky Watson and the court cases that is going on now, it’s not fun.
I see myself as a rugby writer, and rugby writers have to deal with this kind of unpleasantness. Relations with some administrators, like Watson, are very strained. He refuses to speak to the media now. Obviously the players were afraid to talk to the media because their careers were on the line. We had to dig deep to get the news. Eventually some players broke their silence. Crazy? No, sickening.
How crazy do things get reporting on rugby in Port Elizabeth anyway? What challenges and triumphs do you experience as a reporter that other sports journos might not? What do you have to be aware of on a daily level when reporting on the Kings and rugby in that part of the country?
Before the EP Kings got back into Currie Cup rugby and the Southern Kings into Super Rugby, we still had enough space for local club rugby in the paper. Here in the Eastern Cape, club rugby is real rough stuff. Not just for the players. At one stage the teams weren’t so racially mixed as they are now and we had a lot of fights. Between spectators too. I know the feeling of getting beer bottles being thrown at you and things like that. I have long blond hair, so I’m quite a recognizable figure. When I walked past certain people I was a target because of what I wrote and continue to write.
Rugby reporting in Port Elizabeth has been bizarre most of the time. When I came here from a stable union like the Bulls, I was shocked out of my socks by all the political stuff and back-stabbing that was and still is going on. We have had some interesting individuals as presidents of the EPRU.
I remember one called Willem Stuurman. He wasn’t popular with most of his executive. He used to send me a text message to phone him, as he didn’t have airtime. Once, he asked me to come and give him a lift as his car was broken down. So I picked him up and to my surprise he took me along to the police where he handed over a file. He wanted them to investigate corruption in his own union.
Then there was another president, George Davids. People used to make fun of ‘Uncle George’. They used to take bets of how many times he would mention the word “particular” during a speech. By the time he finished his speeches, some of us were pissing ourselves under the table laughing.
Rugby in this part of the country has been known to be hard. People know that if you go to PE, you get hammered. Our team maybe won’t win the match, but they nearly always win the fight. Obviously times have changed, but a lot of people in this area still look to the past (the 90’s), when we had amazing players like Danie Gerber, or tough guys like Barry Pinnock, Frans Erasmus and Adri Geldenhuys. I have found people are quick to criticize the team and stay away from matches but really most of them aren’t very loyal. One of the reasons is all those years the EP played in the First Division: people stayed away and watched Currie Cup matches on TV and became supporters of other teams like the Bulls and the Sharks.
The Kings have had a rocky start to the season. Where do you see the team heading this year?
It’s a shame, the Kings are really up against it. But they are really trying to do their best. There are a couple of really talented young players, like Shane Gates (centre) and CJ Velleman (flanker). But unfortunately the depth isn’t there, and after the first two matches you could see after 30 minutes the holes open up in their defensive systems.
Obviously, defence is a problem. I can tell you in Deon Davids, Mzwandile Stick and Barend Pieterse they have competent coaches, but they don’t have a full-time defense coach. Jacques Nienaber of the SA Rugby mobi unit [a high-performance think tank of specialist coaches] pops around now and then to help, but he has other things to do as well all around the country.
Maybe they will pull off a surprise here and there.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity