Long live the Kings
Southern Kings boss Alan Solomons talks to Sky Sports rugby union writer Tony Curtis about the challenge facing Super Rugby's newest franchise.
By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter @SkysportsTC. Last Updated: 12/02/13 4:33pm
Alan Solomons is a highly-respected figure within rugby circles. Here is a man who has worked all over the world during a distinguished career.
So when the 62-year-old admits that his current role at the Southern Kings is his "biggest challenge", you get a small sense of the task ahead for Super Rugby's newest franchise.
Solomons has previously worked with Western Province, the Stormers, South Africa, Northampton, Ulster and the Barbarians in various capacities, while he was a high performance consultant for the IRB.
He first linked up with the Kings in 2009 for their historic match against the British and Irish Lions, before being appointed as their first director of rugby the following year.
"This is a fantastic challenge for me as I was born and bred here. I went to school at Grey's so to come back to my roots is a real honour"
It has subsequently been a long battle to see the Kings join Super Rugby. Their application to join in 2011 was rejected in favour of the Rebels so that the competition had an even split between the three member countries.
However they were finally granted permission to join at the expense of the Lions in August 2012 - and the Eastern Cape province will now play their first match against the Force on February 23.
"A massive challenge awaits us but we have been working pretty hard," Solomons told Sky Sports.
"It is going to be very tough. We have been working at developing the franchise since I arrived in 2010. We have been getting the structure and everything in place and that takes time."
The fact the Kings have only had six months to piece together a squad means Solomons has had his work cut out.
"The big issue has been that our entry to the Super Rugby wasn't confirmed until August so it has been difficult in terms of recruitment," said Solomons.
"Most of the South Africans in Europe are already contracted as are a lot of the players here. However we have been able to recruit a good core to the squad.
"In time the bulk of the squad will come through the region. Our policy has been to 'bring them home and keep them home' so we are keeping the academy while we have brought back the likes of Luke Watson and Steven Sykes, who both come from the region."
The challenge facing the Kings has been made all the harder by the news that they are not guaranteed Super Rugby beyond this season.
"The visions of the union are for the long-term," said Solomons. "The situation, though, is that there are six Super Rugby franchise is South Africa and only five Conference places available.
"The Lions have dropped out at the end of 2012. That means the team that finishes bottom of the South African Conference in 2013 will play two relegation games against them.
"That means there is no guarantee of Super Rugby in 2014 which is pretty tough to plan for. We will have to avoid finishing there and aim for the top-four of the Conference."
"It will be a tremendous challenge as we will be going in to it with a lot of players who have never played Super Rugby before."
This all means that although the Kings have the structure and facilities in place off the field - they will be based at the Nelson Mandela Stadium - they will have to rely on rising stars from the academy and a sprinkling of experience on the field.
"It will be a tremendous challenge as we will be going into it with a lot of players who have never played Super Rugby before," Solomons added.
"Apart from Luke, Nicolas Vergallo and Tomas Leonardi we don't have the Test match experience of the other franchises.
"The Bulls, Stormers and Sharks are all stacked with internationals while the Cheetahs have a number themselves now.
"It is just the way it is, though. We have some good players coming through. Sergeal Petersen is in the top five in his age grade for the 100 and is a very good footballer; SP Marais is a full-back from Dale College and is part of our academy; Lizo Gqoboko is a prop who had never played until he was 17 and he is a real explosive player; Siyanda Grey is in the centres and has impressed; then there is the likes of lock Rynier Bernado, centre Scott van Breda and fly-half Shane Gates."
Despite the obstacles in the way of the Kings, there is no hiding Solomons' pride heading into the historic campaign.
"This is a fantastic challenge for me as I was born and bred here," he added. "I went to school at Grey's so to come back to my roots is a real honour.
"This is my biggest challenge. To take this union and franchise from nowhere and build it up over the past few years has been amazing."
Watch the Kings make their Super Rugby debut against the Force on Saturday February 23 from 5pm on Sky Sports 4 HD.