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Why Ulster could face an empty stadium when they play Southern Kings

By Rob Cole

Ulster could find themselves playing in front of an empty stadium when they head to South Africa to face the Southern Kings in an historic Guinness PRO14 tie next month. But why?

Coach Les Kiss takes his unbeaten side to Port Elizabeth to face new boys, the Southern Kings, in Round 8 on November 4.

But Ulster’s first match on South African soil could be a low key affair after calls to boycott matches played by their opponents who are backed by the SA Rugby governing body.

And why wouldn't the fans be there?

Given a crowd of only 3,011 turned up to watch their home debut against Leinster last weekend, it won’t take many fans to vote with their feet for the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium to echo with emptiness.

Conversely, that could provide Ulster with an advantage of not having to contend with a partisan home crowd when they make the trip.

The row surrounds a decision taken at a meeting of a group called the Rugby Transformation Coalition on Monday night for clubs and fans to boycott Southern Kings matches until SA Rugby hands back control of the franchise to the Eastern Province Rugby Union.

Why do they want that so badly?

The RTC spokesman in the Eastern Cape, Qondakele Sompondo, said their call was based on the fact they believe that SA Rugby is in breach of its own constitution by continuing to run the affairs of the union.

Sompondo said: “The call to our clubs and the greater Eastern Cape community to boycott the Southern Kings matches was considered as the last option.

“However, we found ourselves without an option because a democratically elected executive is now being undermined and not allowed to run its affairs — we cannot allow that in our rugby.”

How did they get to this point?

In 2015, in an agreement with the previous executive, SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux set up a temporary structure under the control of ex-EPRU chief executive Charl Crous to manage the affairs of the Southern Kings franchise on a temporary basis until a new executive was elected.

When a new executive took office, the mandate of the temporary structure was unilaterally extended to include all professional rugby in the province. RTC now claim there are effectively two bodies governing the game in the Eastern Cape.

“SA Rugby is in breach of its very own constitution by continuing to run professional rugby and affairs of EPRU,” claimed Sompondo.

“They took away the voting rights of a democratically elected executive, placed them under illegal administration and put them in charge of amateur rugby while they run professional rugby.

“SARU is not only undermining this executive but our clubs because they have ignored the resolution taken by the EPRU clubs in their last union meeting, asking them to hand over the control of the union to the new executive.”

What have SA Rugby had to say?

The Kings have lost their opening three games in Conference B and host Italian club Zebre Rugby in Port Elizabeth on Saturday. Just how many fans will turn up for that one will be interesting and SA Rugby president Mark Alexander has claimed the RTC boycott could damage rugby’s reputation.

“I am sure that the one thing the EP rugby public wants above all else is a successful and vibrant Southern Kings team of which they can be proud performing in the PRO14,” he said.

“Calls for boycotts do nothing other than further damage the reputation of the rugby people of Port Elizabeth in the eyes of South Africa and the wider rugby audience.

“The trouble in which the region currently finds itself was several years in the making and it will take several more months to complete the process of putting it back on its feet.”

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