The Southern Kings gave themselves a dream welcome to Vodacom Super Rugby with a passionate performance to beat the Western Force 22-10 at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
Confounding their critics and shocking the rest of the competition, the Kings were out to give the rest of the rugby world a firm message that they belonged in Super Rugby, no matter who disagreed with them.
And while the merits of that argument have not been settled and are in particular dispute in places like Johannesburg, there is no doubting they produced a sensational game to grind out a win against the Australian side.
Two tries by Sergeal Peterson, who three months ago was still putting on his school uniform, plus some heroic tackling and seizing opportunities when they came, made it a night to remember for the new franchise.
There is no doubt there will be greater heights to scale for this team, and tougher challenges to come. The real lesson of Super Rugby that successful teams learn early is that it is not a sprint, but a marathon.
Often those who keep their first-choice players fit and healthy and are able to build momentum without too many injuries are the sides that make the playoffs.
The Kings have taken that first step, but in terms of steps in this competition, it could not have been a bigger one.
The win was necessary to ensure they drum up as much support at home as possible, a massive factor which will be crucial to carry them through the season.
The win also sends a message they are serious about the competition, no matter how bungling their administration seems, and above all, a win sends out a message they can compete at this level.
But to win one game is one thing; to survive and not become the whipping boys of the competition is another.
GRIT AND TENACITY
The grit and tenacity was firmly on display here as they hounded the Force players to every ball, put their heart into every tackle and emerged with more confidence than they had entered on the night.
It helped of course that young Peterson gave them the perfect start, scoring in the opening minutes as the teams sparred in the opening exchanges.
The young talent, who represented South Africa at the World Youth Athletics Championships in the 100m and long jump events, pounced on a loose ball between two Force players and sprinted through for the opening score.
Yet despite his try, the Force controlled most of the play in the opening minutes, and led at the break 10-5 thanks to Pek Cowan burrowing over from close range and Alfi Mafi exploiting the overlap to go in at the corner.
The Force will also feel aggrieved as they seemed to have scored a try through a rolling maul, which was not given.
Referee Lourens van der Merwe ruled the maul had stopped twice, and called for the Force to use the ball, which they failed to do, but continued driving, forcing Van der Merwe to blow them up in an unfortunate and harsh, yet technically correct, call.
Still, the second half brought a revived Kings side, one that felt buoyed by the fact they were still in the game, and they forced two penalties, allowing Demetri Catrakilis to send them into the lead early in the second half.
The turning point came when Hugh McMeniman was yellow carded for a clothes-hanger high tackle on Ronnie Cooke, allowing the Kings to surge forward, and after pulling in the defence, the wide ball found Peterson, who showed he can finish well under pressure, to give the Kings a greater lead.
From then on the Force got desperate, and the Kings showed resolve. Another Catrakilis penalty sealed the Force’s fate, and sent the Australian side packing for Pretoria, where the Bulls will await them next week.
The Kings earned their victory the hard way on Saturday night, but will know this was probably the easiest it would get.
But as Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer loves to say – “Winning is contagious, unfortunately, so is losing.”
The confidence boost is the best thing the new franchise could hope for. What they do with it from here will determine their success in the rest of the competition.
Southern Kings – Tries: Sergeal Petersen (2). Penalties: Demetri Catrakilis (4).
Western Force – Tries: Pek Cowan, Alfi Mafi.