MINUTES after making history by becoming the first Eastern Province rugby captain to lift a major Currie Cup trophy on home soil, an ecstatic EP Kings skipper Darron Nell said it was “one of the proudest moments” of his life.
More than 22000 jubilant fans watched Nell’s team narrowly beat the Pumas 26-25 in an emotion-charged Absa Currie Cup First Division final at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday.
But the Kings did not have much time to savour the win because they have already started to focus on a crunch double-header promotion match against the Cheetahs. The first game is in Bloemfontein on Friday.
The triumph comes a few months before the Southern Kings franchise – comprising EP, South Western Districts and Border – make their debut in the Super 15 rugby competition.
It was the first time a First Division Currie Cup final had been played in Port Elizabeth.
Before the game Nell had promised that his team would win the trophy as a tribute to their injured skipper, Luke Watson – a promise they delivered on in style in a nail-biting final.
“I have been privileged to have been involved in a couple of finals and this one was the most special,” an emotional Nell said afterwards.
“This is my home town and this was one of the proudest moments of my life.”
EP president Cheeky Watson paid tribute to the large crowd, saying fans had been “the 16th man” who had spurred the team to victory.
“The crowd was magnificent and we value the fans’ support tremendously. It was an absolute nail-biter and a great occasion for the city,” Watson said.
He was confident the Kings could overcome the Cheetahs in the promotion match.
“We have to be competitive in the away leg in Bloemfontein and then hit our straps in the second leg in Port Elizabeth,” Watson said.
EP chief executive Anele Pamba said the crowd had transformed the stadium into a fortress.
“This support shows rugby is thriving in the Eastern Cape. It sent a strong message to the rest of South Africa,” he said.
Despite the joy, EP’s director of rugby, Alan Solomons, said the team could not afford to let their hair down with a massive after-match party because they were facing a tough two-leg Currie Cup Premier Division promotion match in a couple of days.
The Kings, seeking a berth in South African rugby’s top tier, now travel to Bloemfontein to face the Cheetahs in a first leg playoff showdown on Friday.
The struggling Cheetahs have to play against the Kings in a survival match after they were thumped 36-15 by Western Province on Saturday, which left them bottom of the Premier Division log.
After receiving the trophy, the jubilant Kings players gathered in their dressing room for a beer before enjoying a braai at the stadium organised by Watson and Pamba.
“A fairly early night was called for because of the promotion challenge that still faces us,” Solomons said.
“In Saturday’s final, the Pumas knew they could give it their all and then go on holiday.
“We also knew that we had 80 minutes on Saturday, and if we thought that 80 minutes would be tough, wait till you see the next 160 minutes in the double-leg playoffs.
“We know we have a massive challenge ahead of us and we are looking forward to rising to that challenge,” Solomons said.
Nell said his team had not played one of their best games against the Pumas, who enjoyed a narrow 13-10 lead at the break.
“In a final, you need to play winning rugby and even if you only win by one point, you have won,” he said.
“We did not have a great start in the final and things did not go our way at the breakdown.
“So we will need to get more accurate [later this week] against the Cheetahs.”
The partisan home crowd directed its anger at referee Jason Jaftha on a number of occasions during the first half, after he awarded penalties against the Kings.
Nell, however, felt Jaftha had enjoyed a good game and had communicated well with the players during the tense final.
EP’s skipper played a vital part in his team’s win and scored a vital try just before half-time to lift his team against a Pumas side who had looked dangerous on attack and rock-solid on defence.
Kings head coach Matt Sexton, a former Canterbury Crusaders hooker, said he had always had great faith in his players, even though they were trailing at the break.
“I always had faith that they knew how to win and I had confidence they knew what to do at the right time,” he said.
“At half-time we said the guys had not fired too many shots and we had the feeling the Pumas had fired quite a few shots at us,” Sexton said.
“We have a busy week ahead and we will make sure we are well prepared going into the playoff games.
“It was a privilege to have been involved in such an occasion and wonderful to have a passionate crowd behind us.”