With the stakes as high as they are, you would think that the first match in the promotion/relegation series between the Southern Kings and MTN Lions in Port Elizabeth is being dreaded by both teams.
But while they acknowledge that there is a lot to lose and far more at stake in this match than there normally is for 80 minutes of rugby (160 across the two games), the Southern Kings say they are excited about the game and are relishing the prospect of being part of such a big occasion.
“I think the general feeling we have is excitement, it’s a huge occasion, it’s like a test match or World Cup final. The guys are looking forward to the occasion,” he Southern Kings coach Matt Sexton after the team announcement.
It’s probably the right attitude to take for a game that will determine which team stays up in Super Rugby next season and which one is condemned to at least a year in the wilderness. The Kings aren’t even in the Premier Division of the Currie Cup, so a loss in the two match series will effectively mean they become just a minor First Division Currie Cup province again.
With so much riding on the game, it would be easy for the players to be frozen by the fear, and for them to ‘choke’ on match day. When you’re the team defending your status, a promotion-relegation game is not one you want and it is thus shrouded in negative connotations, so the coach’s line that it is a moment to be looked forward should help the players in the build-up.
The Kings do have experience of coming through on the really big occasion this season. There was a lot of focus on their debut match in Super Rugby against the Western Force, and skipper Darron Nell should be reminding his charges of how they came through that day with so much pressure on them. Luke Watson is missing on Friday, as is Andries Strauss, the other regular team leader, but Watson was injured early in that Force game, and both were absent when they pushed the Sharks close in their next home match.
The character and spirit shown in those two games, plus in their remarkable draw with the Brumbies and win over the Rebels the following week while overseas, will make it hard for the Lions, even though the visitors have been boosted by the return of three players – Elton Jantjies, Martin Bezuidenhout and Franco van der Merwe – who played Super Rugby this season for other franchises.
However, with the winner being determined on log points picked up across the two matches, rather than on aggregate score across the 160 minutes, the Kings may have to brush up on their try-scoring efficiency. A hard fought low scoring win over the Lions in the first match might not be enough if the Lions are then able to win with a try scoring bonus point the following week. The Kings coaches will be aware of that.
“You take each team on their merits and there are opportunities that will be presented during the match and we just need to capitalise on that,” he said.
“The times where we have been successful on the score board are times where we’ve been very clinical in our approach.”
Indeed, and what the Lions will need to watch out for is the feared Kings’ driving maul, with the pack claiming a high conversion rate from lineouts set up deep in the opposition 22. In fact, they boast the top stats in the competition in that regard.
However, the recent loss to the Stormers at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium might have given the coaches something to think about as it was evident in that game that their quest to keep the scoreboard ticking over through Demetri Catrakilis’ trusty place-kicking boot denied them try-scoring opportunities. Whether to kick or to set up the lineout is something that will have to be the subject of serious discussion in their team meetings in the build-up to match day.