When you compare the respective strengths of the two teams that will face up in the Vodacom Super Rugby promotion-relegation series that starts at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Friday night, it becomes immediately apparent that saying it is about one team’s defence against another’s attack is not a cliché.
The Southern Kings, who face a challenge from the MTN Lions for their Super Rugby status, did leak a lot of tries in what most considered to be a debut season in the competition that exceeded expectations.
However, many of those were conceded over a clutch of matches – there were many occasions during the season where they surprised by holding better equipped teams in check.
“We will show character in every game we play,” was the clarion call of Kings’ director of rugby Alan Solomons at the start of the year and they came close to delivering on that promise. Home matches against the Bulls and Waratahs and away games against the Bulls, Sharks and Crusaders were the exceptions to the general rule.
“Defence, defence, defence…” is the cry that echoes from the normally packed stands at the Port Elizabeth Stadium when the Kings play a bigger team, certainly in the early weeks of the competition. And with former Western Province and Italy defence coach Omar Mounmeinme, a real expert in the art, looking after that aspect of the game, they have generally delivered.
They’re up on Friday night against a team that is known for its running rugby, with Elton Jantjies much better suited to the style of play employed by his home union than the franchise he went on loan to in this past Super Rugby season, the Stormers.
The Lions haven’t played as a team in Super Rugby this season, and as a result of that they might find the Kings’ defence more difficult to break down than the sides they have been playing against and what they have become used to.
In Port Elizabeth, in front of their big crowd, and with the words of coach Matt Sexton, who told them this is something that they should be excited for like you would be for a test match or World Cup final, the Kings’ suffocating defensive system could just prevail. The Lions’ style of play may just be tailored for their approach.
However, this is a series of matches, and not just one game, and it is understood that the winner will be determined on log points.
In other words if the Kings win on Friday and pick up four points for the win but don’t score four tries, but the Lions win next week and do score four tries, then the Lions go through and regain their place in Super Rugby next season.
Of course losing by less than seven points also comes into it, as that offers another route to a bonus point, but that too could militate against the Kings if they don’t hit their straps in the first game and make full use of their home ground advantage by scoring four tries and winning with something to spare.
If there is going to be a win by a margin, you sense it might be at Ellis Park, and in some senses you could say that a narrow Kings win in Port Elizabeth, without bonus points, could make it advantage Lions.
So what the Kings have to do is do more with the ball when they have it. That means an interesting debate has to take place over whether they depend on ace goalkicker Demetri Catrakilis to kick every point, or whether they go for broke and set up attacking lineouts.
The Kings’ conversion rate from driving mauls has been as high as any team in the competition this year, and it has been by far their most profitable source of five pointers.
But apart from intercepts they have struggled beyond that, and in this game they are missing Sergeal Petersen, the big find of the season and their intercept king.
Conversely though, although the Lions may not be the defensive sieve they were a couple of seasons ago, the fact that they have been playing friendlies up to now means they may have been a bit loose – and the Kings could find them easier to breach than the teams they have been playing against.
It all depends though on how the nerves of the big night affect them – and the question of how both teams react to the inordinate amount of pressure is one of the many that make these two games so intriguing.
Well its intriguing if you’re a neutral, for there is way too much riding on it for both protagonists to make this just another game.
Teams for the match in Port Elizabeth
SOUTHERN KINGS: 15. SP Marais, 14. Marcello Sampson, 13. Ronnie Cooke, 12. Shane Gates, 11. Hadleigh Parkes, 10. Demetri Catrakilis, 9. Shaun Venter, 8. Jacques Engelbrecht, 7. Wimpie van der Walt, 6. Cornell du Preez, 5. David Bulbring, 4. Darron Nell (capt), 3. Kevin Buys, 2. Bandise Maku, 1. Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16. Charl du Plessis, 17. Hannes Franklin, 18. Steven Sykes, 19. Devin Oosthuizen, 20. Nicolas Vergallo, 21. George Whitehead, 22.Waylon Murray.
MTN LIONS: 15. Ruan Combrinck, 14. Deon van Rensburg, 13. Stokkies Hanekom, 12. Dylan des Fountain, 11. Anthony Volmink, 10. Elton Jantjies, 9. Michael Bondesio, 8. Warren Whiteley, 7. Derick Minnie, 6. Jaco Kriel, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 4 .Hendrik Roodt, 3. Julian Redelinghuys, 2. Martin Bezuidenhout, 1. JC van Rensburg (captain).
Replacements: 16. Robbie Coetzee, 17. Ruan Dreyer, 18. Willie Britz, 19. Warwick Tecklenburg, 20. Ross Cronje, 21. Marnitz Boshoff, 22. Chrysander Botha.
Kick-off: 7:10pm CAT (SA, GMT+2) live on SSHD/SS1 and on the web and mobi.