Super Rugby

What was the Kings' secret this season?

Lionel Cronje (Getty)
Lionel Cronje (Getty)

Cape Town - In the space of two seasons, coach Deon Davids transformed the Kings from Super Rugby whipping boys into a side that backed themselves against anybody. 

They may be out of Super Rugby next year, but South Africa's favourite underdogs left the competition with their heads held high after what was their best year yet. 

By the time it was all done, the Kings had finished with six wins from 15 matches to claim 11th place on the overall log ahead of the Force, Cheetahs, Reds, Bulls, Waratahs, Sunwolves and Rebels. 

Along the way, they recorded their first ever wins in Australia and Argentina and also had memorable triumphs over the Sharks and Bulls. 

As they improved week in and week out, there was a growing chorus of support for the Kings to stay in the competition as the Bulls and Cheetahs failed to impress. 

It was not to be, however, and SA Rugby decided that the Kings would be ditched from the 2018 edition of the competition along with the Cheetahs in line with SANZAAR's tournament restructuring. 

With players like Chris Cloete, Lionel Cronje and Makazole Mapimpi leading the way, the Kings had finally given Port Elizabeth something to get excited about. 

Unfortunately for Davids, all three of those players are on their way out of the franchise just as the Kings are set to confirm their participation in this year's Pro12 in Europe, and they aren't the only ones.

At this stage, Davids is not sure of what his squad will look like come September, and he will be forced to start all over again with a new group of players in a new competition.

That won't be foreign to him. In 2016 he was asked to do exactly that when the Kings were thrust back into Super Rugby while in financial ruin.

They only won two matches all season that year, but Davids was able to turn the ship around in 2017.

So, what was his secret?

"We knew that our conditioning was a big problem in 2016 so we really put a huge effort in upping our game in that area," Davids told Sport24

"I sat down with my conditioning coach Nadus Niewoudt and spoke about the players we had and the type of rugby we wanted to play. We had to condition our players according to that plan and I think he's done a fantastic job."

It was all part of a tireless season debrief that saw Davids and his coaching staff go back to the drawing board after 2016. 

"We also put a huge emphasis on our team culture. It's important that there is a lot of respect in the group and that people trust each other," he said.

"We all needed to know what the purpose was and what we wanted to achieve."

The approach to training was also far more goal-driven, on an individual and team basis.

"In terms of our training week, we did things a little differently to what we've done in the past. There were certain goals that we wanted to achieve every day in our training," said Davids.

"We worked out individual development plans for each of the players at the start of the season and we just continued to build on that.

"We had a strong leadership group that grew that culture on and off the field, which was very important.

"It is the job of the coach to implement structures, but you want the players to take that on board themselves and that is what happened."

Cronje, particularly, thrived in his leadership role and had one of his best seasons to date. At the heart of every Kings win, the 28-year-old was being backed for Springbok selection by many ahead of the France series. 

His loss, among others, will undoubtedly hurt the Kings as they begin their new venture. 

But the damage doesn't stop there.

The Kings have also lost their backline coach, Vuyo Zangqa, who is on his way to Germany to pursue his future in Sevens. 

"I would have liked to continue with Vuyo. His contribution this year was special," Davids said. 

"But I wish him all the best in his future endeavors and thank him for his service to the franchise."

An announcement confirming the Kings' participation in this year's Pro12 is expected this week.

Follow Sport24 journalist @LloydBurnard on Twitter...

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