There were times during his four arduous years in charge of the Southern Kings that Deon Davids must have felt like he was caught in some sort of grotesque rugby groundhog day.
A perpetual and maddening cycle of losing his best players and most experienced staff to bigger teams and replacing them with untested kids. Months of nurturing and grafting undone and a mountainous rebuild required every off-season, with only the paltriest of resources to make it happen.
In 2017, their third and last season in Super Rugby, the Kings stole hearts for the way they attacked and the scalps they took, even while the axe of SANZAAR was hanging over their heads.
They beat the Waratahs and the Jaguares on the road and got the better of the Sharks at home, finishing 11th – their best placing. It was the only year Davids had anything approaching stability or continuity – no coincidence that it was the only year his team made any sort of splash or gave any kind of reflection of his considerable talents as a coach.
After two torrid campaigns in the PRO14, the franchise was taken over by new owners in March. With a year left on his contract, Davids was ready to go.
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“In the past four years with the Kings, I only had one year where I could actually build on a squad, select a squad, and have continuity with my coaching and support staff,” he explained to RugbyPass.
“That was in 2017 and we had a fantastic season. Apart from that, within my two PRO14 years, I never had that privilege. I lost some quality staff to the national set-up, so I had to get new staff who were inexperienced and it takes time to build a specific culture around your management.
“What made it even more difficult was the squad – there was no continuity in the squad and I had to rebuild every year. The European PRO14 teams have excellent high-performance academies.
“Their match-day 23s are filled with international players and stars from overseas. In my case, when you start all over again, it takes time to build a culture, to build combinations and to prepare a solid base in terms of preparation and conditioning.”
After being booted out of Super Rugby, the Kings were gutted, players gobbled up by bigger beasts on juicier contracts, leaving because no-one knew if the franchise would exist or in which competition it would play in a few months’ time.
— Isuzu Southern Kings (@SouthernKingsSA) August 15, 2017
To rub salt into the wounds, Mapimpi would score 10 tries the following season. Off too went Wandile Mjekevu, Waylon Murray, Tyler Paul, Schalk van der Merwe, Chris Cloete and Louis Schreuder – all key members of their Super Rugby campaign.
Davids was left with 15 players. His own contractual situation was only clarified around a month before the PRO14 started and, incredibly, training began just 18 days before the first competitive game.
He knew it would be brutal, but he didn’t know all the work he’d put in over this bruising inaugural season would be torpedoed a year later. Another exodus struck in 2018. Twenty-one players were gone, coaches moved on, Davids scrambled to put a team and staff together, and to create a culture from nothing.
Southern Kings are absolutely bloody useless. Like really useless. Worse than a chocolate fire guard. At least you could eat that!
— The Pen (@thepenGW) May 27, 2016
Overall results have been predictably heinous. In 42 PRO14 matches, the Kings have three victories. They have conceded an average of 37 points per game and had an eye-watering 226 tries stuck past them.
How could a franchise operating on this basis possibly hope to compete with even the most modest or the least fancied PRO14 sides? You could have replaced Davids with Steve Hansen, Warren Gatland or Joe Schmidt and each would have had a hell of a job getting the Kings off the bottom of their conference.
“It’s very, very difficult, mentally and physically tiring,” said Davids. “You have got to set the scene as a coach every single day. Irrespective of the challenges you face, you have got to create something the players can hang on to. That takes a lot of strain.
? REACTION ?
Our Director of High Performance, Robbi Kempson, has welcomed the "tough matches" that await our lads this coming season.
"I’m quite confident that the squad and the coaching staff will relish the challenge.”
Read more: https://t.co/gcuc4Pihx6 pic.twitter.com/Z6wB3UgssX
— Isuzu Southern Kings (@SouthernKingsSA) July 17, 2019
“You just come to the point when you get things right and get things going, then you get a setback and you have to start all over again. It’s difficult to start all over again every year because you want to be part of something that you can see growing from one year to the next, where you can see people and the environment getting better. If that doesn’t happen, it is desperately frustrating.
“You’re also under a lot of pressure and you can’t actually showcase what you can do because of that. It’s out of your control – not that I’m trying to make excuses, but if you look at the whole picture, it’s immensely difficult.
“Last year, we didn’t even play a friendly game before the PRO14 started as a result of injury and budget constraints. You have got to get a feeling of your players and combinations. And while we are playing in the PRO14, no other domestic competition is running in South Africa.
“Our Rugby Committee has shortlisted candidates who will be interviewed by the interview panel for the Head Coach position, and the interviewing process has commenced." – Chairman, Loyiso Dotwana
— Isuzu Southern Kings (@SouthernKingsSA) July 11, 2019
“I can’t introduce the rest of the squad to other competitions to see how they develop, so I only select the players going on training sessions. Match fitness and training are two completely different things. And keeping guys positive becomes a challenge – it’s not good for a player just to come and train and he is not playing on the weekend.”
More than three months on from their last game, the cycle of chaos continues. Remarkably – although perhaps unsurprisingly – the Kings have still to appoint Davids’ successor, and the quest for the new man is playing out in a ridiculously ugly and ramshackle manner.
The shortlist of candidates was made public on social media by an Eastern Province official. Peter de Villiers, the former Springboks coach and one of the men on it, came out firing on Tuesday after reports claimed he wasn’t qualified for the job, Worcester’s Rory Duncan has apparently ruled himself out of the running, and the South African press says Steve Jackson, the Samoa coach, is the last candidate standing – even though he’s about to lead the Pacific Islanders in the World Cup finals.
This is turning into quite a mess. https://t.co/QyNLO3qn8c
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 30, 2019
Yet again, the Kings will start their PRO14 season light years behind the rest and quite possibly coach-less. The odds on them finishing anywhere but the bottom of their conference are astronomical.
Davids has emerged from all the tumult a better coach and a cannier person. He knew the Kings job would present a monumental challenge, but if that was what it took to get a crack at Super Rugby, then he was prepared to tackle it.
As a coach, Davids has always been adept at making a little go a long way. In truth, he has never known much else. Coming up the hard way in the Western Cape, he began coaching at club level, working his way up to assistant and head coach roles at three provincial teams where he was part of two Currie Cup First Division titles in among stints helping the Emerging Springboks and South Africa Under-20s before moving to Port Elizabeth in 2016.
? BREAKING NEWS ?
Deon Davids and the ISUZU Southern Kings have reached an amicable agreement to part ways.
The franchise would like to thank Coach DD for laying the foundation for the future.
We wish him well for his future.
Read more: https://t.co/NiUkrTpjuQ pic.twitter.com/dRI5SejJ5L
— Isuzu Southern Kings (@SouthernKingsSA) June 19, 2019
Rassie Erasmus, South Africa’s director of rugby, is said to be one of his biggest champions. The Cheetahs expressed an interest in hiring Davids to replace Franco Smith this year, but it never happened. He applied and was interviewed for the Bulls job in Afrikaans country, but that went to Pote Human.
In cataloguing Davids’ long pathway to recognition and Super Rugby, there is an elephant in the room. He has no evidence that his ascent has been consciously made more difficult because of the colour of his skin, but as the only black coach in charge of any of the six franchises last season, and with only four black assistants across those teams, the aesthetics are not good.
“It’s difficult for me to say that I have been deliberately overlooked (for certain jobs), but what I can say is that if you look back at my career, it’s always been a career of having to get used to less and having to compete at the top level,” he insisted.
All the best and well deserved Coach!!! pic.twitter.com/gUt8YoXkeg
— TheYellowCap (@theyellowcap) December 11, 2018
“When I coached from Currie Cup onwards, the teams I’ve been involved in, it was always a situation of having to build from nowhere and mould teams into something special, which is a struggle.
“I would love to have an opportunity where I can walk into a franchise with enough resources, be able to put my hands on quality players, and just play on an equal level in terms of what I can do. Unfortunately, I haven’t had that opportunity up until now.
“If you look back at our country, you can almost see that happens a lot easier (for white coaches) because there are not a lot of coaches of colour at this level. I’m the second or third that got an opportunity at Super Rugby level and the first to have an opportunity at PRO14 level. It’s difficult for me to say that it is deliberately the case, but that is the trend. That happens in our country. That is the picture that is out there.”
— SA Rugby magazine (@SARugbymag) July 17, 2019
In his time since leaving the Kings, Davids has been shadowing Erasmus in the Springboks camp, eager to use the rare gaps in his diary to better himself. He is keen to test his abilities in the northern hemisphere but his great dream is to lead the Boks.
The word from South Africa is that Erasmus will step back to his director of rugby role after the World Cup, which might leave the head coach’s role vacant. “It’s the most difficult position in the world,” said Davids.
“But if you have come through so much hard work and challenges that I’ve faced, being in Super Rugby, being in the PRO14, having been involved in three Junior World Championship campaigns as an assistant, being with the Emerging Springboks, having coached at the domestic level in the Currie Cup and Vodacom Cup – all the levels in South Africa. That’s the only box I haven’t ticked and I’m confident I would be able to slot in there.
“I’ve got a good understanding of the players, a good knowledge of those players – a lot of them I’ve worked with at junior level – so if the opportunity is there, and they would consider me, I would be confident that I could make that step up and make a contribution.”
Amid all of this, Davids has never forgotten his roots. He is visiting clubs around the Western Cape, eager to smooth the path for the next batch of black coaches. “I understand what these guys feel and fear,” he explained.
“I said to them, ‘I’ve been through this whole reel, you don’t have to go through the same 360 degrees that I have – I can make it shorter for you. I’m here to assist and give you some advice and make you look differently at stuff’.
“If I can do that and inspire and bring through some aspirant black coaches or whoever wants to listen and learn, I will do that with an open heart. That’s my passion, that’s my heart and I love to do that.”
WATCH: Episode three of the RugbyPass Rugby Explorer series sees Jim Hamilton take a trek through South African rugby, including a stop-off in Port Elizabeth
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