The worth of having the Southern Kings in Vodacom Super Rugby was always going to be the measure of their improvement during the competition, and in that sense their excellent 28-all draw with the log-leading Brumbies in Canberra on Friday ended all arguments against their inclusion.
This was their third game on the road, and they have improved in each one. No-one, not even the most loyal Kings fan, would have predicted the result of a game which the Kings actually shaded in terms of log points. The Brumbies scored only two tries while the Kings scored four to grab their bonus point and end with three for the match against the two for the hosts.
It was a nailbiting finish to the game, with the Kings camping on attack and the Brumbies repeatedly infringing as they tried to wind down the clock. Cornell du Preez was the man who completed the touch-down, powering over the line from close range to set up an easy conversion attempt for Demetri Catrakilis, who did not start the game and only came onto the field shortly before the end from the bench.
George Whitehead, who played flyhalf in his place, missed an easy penalty kick with seven minutes to go so you could say that the Kings could easily have won this one. They also played most of the last quarter of an hour with only 14 men after prop Schalk Ferreira was sin-binned by referee Jaco Peyper for not rolling away.
Peyper had already issued a warning so he had little choice but to make the call, and you would say the same of most of the many penalties awarded against the Kings on a night where their discipline certainly let them down. That said, the fact they made it hard for themselves, and also made some elementary errors in the second half like kicking the ball directly into touch after winning a heel against the head at a scrum, only makes their achievement more significant.
As has been the case all season, it was their outstanding combative defensive effort that laid the platform for them. The Brumbies took some flak from commentators and television comments people for lacking adventure at the back, but in truth it normally does become hard to hold onto the ball and be adventurous when you are continually hit by a solid wall of defenders that gang tackle you and smash you back.
Kings director of rugby Alan Solomons said at the start of the season that he wanted his team to play with character in every game, and they are delivering on that pledge, and then some. They were behind 13-0 early in the match and at that stage they looked as if they were in for their biggest hiding yet as the Brumbies played clinical rugby and made try-scoring look easy.
Christian Lealiifano kicked an early penalty and not long after that wing Henry Speight ran onto a Lealiifano kick ahead to score the first try of the match and give his team an 8-0 lead. The Brumbies’ other wing then joined the try-scoring act and it looked as if, after 15 minutes, the Kings were gone.
But think again. From that point onwards the Kings were effectively the dominant team, as a scoreline of 28-15 and four tries to nil in the last 65 minutes would indicate. The Kings continued to be heavily penalised for their attempts at slowing the game down, and there were times when they were held up by mistakes, but their success at keeping the ball and then doing something with it has improved out of sight.
Their linespeed on defence was outstanding, and the loose-forwards, all three of the guys who started plus big replacement Jacques Engelbrecht, who fired up the Kings with the contemptuous ease with which he bumped off a tackle from Speight, were magnificent. No-one was better on the night though than flanker Wimpie van der Walt. The No 7 just never allowed the Brumbies any headway across the advantage line, and as the Brumbies do play a South African style of rugby, that was pivotal to the result.
IMPRESSIVE FINISHING ABILITY
Waylon Murray made a promising return to top rugby as a member of a starting team at top level and skipper Andries Strauss never allowed anything through his channel, while the scrum, until Ferreira was pinned late in the game, was rock solid and occasionally even dominant. When Ferreira was off the Brumbies scored two three pointers off scrum infringements, so that was also key to the Brumbies managing a draw rather than suffering the ignominy of losing as the first ranked side against the team positioned 14th.
The Kings made full use of an advantage signal from Peyper in setting up their first try, some impressive ploughing through the middle and sharp recycling and ball retention eventually resulting in Ferreira sliding over in the 22nd minute. The Whitehead conversion made it 13-7 and from then on the expectation of a one-sided game disappeared.
The Brumbies were poor, and they did have some top players out for this game, but the poor attitude that tripped them up should not detract from the Kings’ achievement. The visitors, after all, have only been in existence for a few months, whereas the Brumbies have been a Super Rugby franchise since 1996.
A long-range Nic White penalty made it 16-7 after half an hour, but it was only kicks for the Brumbies from then on, whereas the Kings showed impressive finishing ability when they got the opportunity. Like South African teams tend to be, they’re particularly adept at the driving the maul from the lineout, and that was their avenue of attack as Van der Walt dotted down after 32 minutes.
The Brumbies went to 19-14 through another Lealiifano penalty and that was the halftime score, but Jake White summed it up during the halftime interview: “The bottom line is the Kings are not what we think they are.”
Indeed, maybe it is time to start taking the team from the Eastern Cape a bit more seriously, and their composure in the second half, both in chasing the game at the end and in taking the lead early in the half, was impressive.
The Brumbies stormed onto the attack after halftime. It was a pivotal moment of the game, for had they gone over for a try then, there might have been space on the scoreboard at the end. But the Kings held firm under the onslaught, a ball was kicked through when they were defending inside their 22, Sergeal Petersen picked it up, and one of those spectacular turn-around counterattacking tries that are starting to become the Kings’ trademark was the result.
Petersen did look like he had butchered it with the wrong option when he was eventually caught inside the Brumbies half, but he got the ball back when he took up scrumhalf off the recycle and the Kings had enough of an advantage in numbers to put Cornell du Preez in for the third try, with the conversion putting the Kings ahead 21-19 after 47 minutes.
Frequent penalties kept stopping the Kings’ momentum later in the game, both in terms of stemming their attempts to build pressure on attack and in terms of allowing the Brumbies to put points on the board. Kings scrumhalf Nicolas Vergallo had a kick charged down off a defensive lineout and a penalty resulted that allowed the Brumbies to go back into a one point lead.
There was never much in it after that though, and had Whitehead kicked the kickable attempt he was presented with when his team were down to 14 men and trailing by four points in the last 10 minutes, it would have been a one point game. Instead the Brumbies ended up kicking another scrum penalty to make it 28-21 with two minutes remaining and it left the Kings needing to score a converted try to draw level.
That they managed it is a tribute to their character and determination as much as it is to their rapid improvement and willingness to learn through the course of the competition. Not just the people of the Eastern Cape, but the whole of South Africa, should be doffing their caps to them.
Brumbies – Tries: Henry Speight, Joseph Tomane. Penalties: Christian Lealiifano (5), Nic White.
Southern Kings – Tries: Wimpie van der Walt, Schalk Ferreira, Cornell du Preez (2). Conversions: George Whitehead (3), Demetri Catrakilis.