SOUTHERN Kings No8 Luke Watson returns to action for the first time since week one to lead the Eastern Cape franchise against the Bulls in their Super Rugby clash on Saturday.
Watson, the designated squad captain, sustained a throat injury during the Kings’ historic debut match in which they beat the Western Force at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and he will be under pressure to validate his selection.
He has not played in two months and in his absence the Kings have progressed smoothly, underlined by a draw with the Brumbies and a win over the Rebels on their recent Australasian tour while the back row has grown into a formidable unit.
Although there is no denying Watson’s talent and skill, eyebrows have been raised at his immediate elevation into the starting line-up at the expense of the superb Jacques Engelbrecht and Devin Oosthuizen.
But Watson’s inclusion, if he shows his best form, in combination with the excellent Cornell du Preez and Wimpie van der Walt could make for one of the most dynamic loose trios in the competition.
The Kings have shown that what they lack in experience and class across the park, they make up for in determination, fitness and the willingness to play for each other.
They are likely to be outgunned by a superior Bulls side after a taxing tour, but a near-capacity 48,000 crowd and their ability to never go away even when they fall behind, should make this an intriguing encounter and a potential banana peel for the Bulls.
The Kings’ head coach, former Crusaders hooker Matt Sexton, has warned his team that they are only as good as their last game.
The tough-talking New Zealander wants his troops to erase memories of their heart-stopping win over the Rebels last Saturday and to look ahead to the huge physical challenge the Bulls will pose.
“We have to ensure we perform well against the Bulls after we beat the Rebels,” Sexton said. “Although we had a successful tour and enjoyed some good performances, you are only as good as your last game.”
Meanwhile, Sharks coach John Plumtree has shaken things up for his team’s top of the South African Conference clash against the Cheetahs in Durban on Saturday by axing fullback Frans Steyn and No 8 Ryan Kankowski and resting tighthead Jannie du Plessis.
The Sharks are also without the injured JP Pietersen, which is a huge blow for the South African log leaders, while they are also still searching for a ball-carrying option to dovetail with Marcell Coetzee. The inclusion of Jean Deysel after injury should provide them with another option, while lock Pieter-Steph du Toit is also growing into that role.
Kankowski has been dropped from the match 22, while Steyn and Du Plessis are on the bench, where on-loan Lions back Andries Coetzee also sits for the first time and could be in line for a debut.
“Ryan Kankowski is not in good form,” Plumtree said.
“We are still putting a plan in place for him going forward, but I think he is still feeling the effects of the Japanese season, he still hasn’t come right.
“He, himself, is battling to work out what’s going wrong, it’s not easy for him or any one of us.”
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske has once again made consistent selections, more out of necessity than choice.
Prop Coenie Oosthuizen makes his first start of the season in place of the injured Trevor Nyakane, while flank Lappies Labuschagne, No8 Philip van der Walt, prop Lourens Adriaanse, hooker Adriaan Strauss, lock Francois Uys, centres Robert Ebersohn and Johann Sadie, wings Raymond Rhule and Willie le Roux and fullback Hennie Daniller all start their ninth consecutive match.
The Cheetahs have lost their past five meetings against the Sharks and last week saw their run of five consecutive victories this year ended by the Bulls.
They are starting to feel the effects of their heavy schedule, but know that another strong defensive effort could lead to success.
The Sharks, outside of scoring 10 tries against the Rebels in one match, have only crossed the chalk three times in their other six games.
It is a worrying stat for Plumtree but one that will give the Cheetahs a lift.
With George Byron, Sapa