About 80% of respondents on the country’s biggest sports website believe the Chiefs will beat the Brumbies to win back-to-back Vodacom SuperRugby titles on Saturday, and one imagines a similar proportion of fans would declare it a sad day for South African rugby when the Southern Kings or Lions are banished into the wilderness later in the day after the second leg of their promotion/relegation series.
The future of both the Lions and the Kings as professional, commercially viable franchises rests on Saturday afternoon’s match at Ellis Park. The Eastern Cape side have a deficit of seven points to make up, never mind the fact that they have to win and prevent the hosts from getting a bonus point.
It is obviously a no-win situation for South African rugby: either the tremendous growth of the game in the Eastern Cape, the Kings having performed much better than expected, or one of the traditional powerhouses will be sacrificed.
The lack of SuperRugby action in 2013 has left the Lions with their heads barely above water and the coffers of the proud union, already struggling before their relegation from the competition, could well run dry if they do not have top rugby to host next year.
The incompetence of the officials the South African Rugby Union (Saru) sent to negotiate the expanded SuperRugby format means the sport in this country will lose a leg this weekend … it’s a bit like asking someone whether they’d like to have their left leg or their right leg chopped off.
It also makes it absolutely imperative that Saru are already planning for 2016 when the next Sanzar expansion is scheduled to occur and that they have contingency plans in place to keep either the Kings or the Lions afloat until then.
The Lions edged out the Kings in Port Elizabeth last weekend because they kept their composure better under pressure. The ill-discipline of the Kings allowed Elton Jantjies to keep chipping away at the scoreboard. Now that the chips are down and the Kings have to beat the Lions at a sold-out Ellis Park, how will they respond?
There seems little doubt that the Kings will need to add something extra to their ultra-conservative game plan in order to beat the Lions, but is there the attacking skill to do that within their side?
Director of rugby Alan Solomons, who is leaving the Kings to coach Edinburgh whatever the outcome of Saturday’s match is, is backing a new centre pairing of the experienced duo of Waylon Murray and Ronnie Cooke.
Star flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis is out with a hand injury, with George Whitehead taking the number 10 jersey, while debutant Scott van Breda, who is normally a centre, is on the left wing and is going to handle the goal kicking for the Kings.
The Kings, as the rank underdogs in SuperRugby, have honed their defensive skills to such an extent that they made the most tackles and had the best completion-rate in the competition; but Saturday’s game is calling for them to showcase attacking capabilities that have been lying dormant.
The Lions, on the other hand, have been racking up the tries in non-competitive matches and the backline is used to crossing the whitewash this year; Jantjies is a skilful distributor, they have a quality centre pairing in Stokkies Hanekom and Dylan des Fountain and dangerous finishers in the back three in Antony Volmink and Ruan Combrinck.
Up front, hard, experienced men such as Franco van der Merwe, captain JC Janse van Rensburg and flank Derick Minnie ensure that the Lions aren’t lambs to the slaughter when it comes to matching the intensity and physicality of a SuperRugby side.
But whatever the outcome, one hopes that Saru will take steps to ensure that, when we look back through the mists of time, we don’t remember the Kings, representing such a strategically important chunk of the country as the Eastern Cape, as having one season of SuperRugby as some sort of quirky experiment; or the Lions as being a once-great union, the first winners of the Super 10 competition that preceded the Sanzar tournament, that has faded into obscurity.
The Brumbies are a side that is returning from relative obscurity in SuperRugby as they contest the final for the first time since their 2004 triumph. They will be travelling to Hamilton and will need to overcome a Chiefs side that has the confidence of winning the title last year, scoring the most points and tries this season, and the prestige of beating the heavily-favoured Crusaders last weekend.
Jake White’s men will also have to overcome travelling from Pretoria to New Zealand and the distracting effects of thousands of cow bells as a 25 000 capacity crowd roars on the Chiefs in Hamilton.
The Brumbies have certainly bought into the former World Cup winning coach’s philosophy and they showed at Loftus Versfeld last weekend that they are willing to risk their limbs in defence and have a steely focus on sticking to the game plan.
And the Brumbies have the kicking game and a powerful lineout that could trouble a Chiefs side that, amazingly, had the ball for the least time out of all sides in SuperRugby.
But the fact the Chiefs scored the most points and tries in regular season play shows their greatest strengths – their ability to make metres when carrying the ball and the skills of their players in beating defenders.
Locks Brodie Retallick and Craig Clarke and loose forwards Liam Messam and Tanerau Latimer bring a hard edge to the pack, while Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden have the tactical vision and skills that have been central to the Chiefs’ success.
Those website pollsters clearly believe the Brumbies will need a miracle to beat the Chiefs at their home ground in Hamilton. But miracles do happen in rugby, as the spirited, well-coached Brumbies discovered last weekend in Pretoria.
Lions: 15-Ruan Combrink, 14-Deon Helberg, 13-Stokkies Hanekom, 12-Dylan des Fountain, 11-Antony Volmink, 10-Elton Jantjies, 9-Ross Cronjé, 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-Martin Dreyer, 18-Willie Britz, 19-Warwick Tecklenburg, 20-Guy Cronjé, 21-Marnitz Boshoff, 22-Chrysander Botha.
Southern Kings: 15-SP Marais, 14-Hadleigh Parkes, 13-Ronnie Cooke, 12-Waylon Murray, 11-Scott van Breda, 10-George Whitehead, 9-Shaun Venter, 8-Jacques Engelbrecht, 7-Wimpie van der Walt, 6-Cornell du Preez, 5-Darron Nell, 4-David Bulbring, 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-Wesley Dunlop, 22-Shane Gates.