It's all on the line as the Kings and the Lions prepare to do battle in Friday's first leg of their Super Rugby promotion-relegation clash.
It's all on the line as the Kings and the Lions prepare to do battle in the first leg of their Super Rugby promotion-relegation clash.
In a sense, Friday's match is more important than the Super Rugby semi-finals that will be played the following day or perhaps even next week's final. This two-leg play-off is not about silverware, it's a simple matter of survival.
The Kings have performed admirably in their first season of Super Rugby. A bright start saw them fair very well against Australian opposition, beating the Force and Rebels and grabbing an exhilarating draw with the Brumbies.
However, they faded badly in the latter stages of the campaign, despite notching up a further win over the Highlanders, taking a bit of shine off their opening successes.
Meanwhile, in the wilderness of the Vodacom Cup, the Lions have been doing all that could be expected of them – winning. The men from Johannesburg hoisted the Vodacom Cup trophy after beating the Pumas in the final, although their build-up to the knockout stages was not the most convincing as they squeaked through on points difference.
Alongside the Vodacom Cup, the Lions have run a series of fixtures that make up the 'Lions Challenge', which has seen them beat Russia, Mont de Marsan and Samoa but also have a host of fixtures cancelled, hurting their preparation for the match against the Kings.
The Lions have been boosted by the return of lock Franco van der Merwe, hooker Martin Bezuidenhout and fly-half Elton Jantjies for the encounter, with the trio back with the union after Super Rugby loan spells with other franchises.
On the face of it, Jantjies is the man that should have the most impact. After a disappointing season with the Stormers, the young pivot has a point to prove and it may be the last one he gets to make for some time if he doesn't secure a deal in Cape Town.
However, one of the Lions' Achilles heels this year has been their set plays, with the line-out a particular concern. Van der Merwe confirmed his quality at the Sharks and Johan Ackermann will need the experienced campaigner to step up and, in conjunction with Bezuidenhout, take responsibility for shoring up the Lions line-out.
The Kings will also be looking to a few key figures to step up, particularly in the absence of Luke Watson and Andries Strauss. The pair have shared the leadership duties for the majority of the season, although Friday's skipper Darron Nell has also worn the captain's armband. The hosts will also be without flyer Sergeal Petersen whose explosive nature will be missed.
Aside from the three absentees the side bears only one change to the one that beat the Force in the opening game of the season, with Nell replacing Steven Sykes. But while the personnel may not differ too much, the team seem to be in a different head space.
Real or imagined, one can't help but feel that a season of Super Rugby has left the Kings a bit flat ahead of what is the biggest game of the year. While head coach Matt Sexton on Tuesday spoke of the excitement within the squad for a game “that's like a Test match or a World Cup final”, the feeling from the outside is that the Kings are not in the best shape.
This is obviously not ideal when one considers the importance of the match; suggestions that it's do or die for the team that loses over two legs are not far-fetched – the financial implications will be massive.
However, if there is one thing that the Kings have shown this year is that they have the ability to surprise. They weren't expected to win a match this season yet they produced three victories with some great defence and industrious attack. They have certainly have the ability to win, but whether they will remains to be seen.
Head-to-head: There is a certain irony in the match-up between Demetri Catrakilis and Elton Jantjies. Jantjies is the man that wore the number ten jersey for the Stormers this season while Catrakilis was the player many began to wish was filling the role. It would be doing Jantjies a disservice to label his time with the Cape side as a failure, but it's safe to say he will need to prove a few doubters wrong on Friday. In contrast, Catrakilis has exceeded expectations this term, picking up from where he left off after a successful Currie Cup campaign with Western Province.
Key battle: Rather than one particular position, discipline will be the buzz word from both coaches heading into the game. Both Catrakilis and Jantjies are strong from the kicking tee and ill-discipline will prove costly not only on the scoreboard but also in terms of building up much-needed momentum.
Kings: 15 SP Marais, 14 Hadleigh Parkes, 13 Ronnie Cooke, 12 Shane Gates, 11 Marcello Sampson, 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.
Lions: 15 Ruan Combrinck, 14 Deon van Rensburg, 13 Nicolaas 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 Janse van Rensburg.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Ruan Dreyer, 18 Willie Britz, 19 Warwick Tecklenburg, 20 Ross Cronje, 21 Marnitz Boshoff, 22 Chrysander Botha.
Date: Friday, July 26
Venue: Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Kick-off: 19.10 (17.10 GMT)
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant referees: Jason Jaftha, Sindile Mayende
TMO: Deon van Blommestein