Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - The much-maligned Kings always faced a “difficult” maiden season of Super Rugby in 2013 ... that hasn’t been altered either for the better or worse in the wake of their 41-31
friendly reverse to the sidelined Lions at Ellis Park on Saturday.
I suggested earlier in the week that the Eastern Cape franchise were highly unlikely to give this awkward date a great element of priority ... and with their substantially weakened start-out XV, the Kings certainly sang to that tune strategically for the media- and public-hyped “grudge” match.
As supposed needle games go, this one turned out mostly tame from an argy-bargy point of view.
There were no more nose-to-nose confrontations or bouts of jersey-yanking and headlocks than you would expect in a typical South African derby: why, the Kings didn’t even get the bird from the audience to quite the extent many might have assumed they would as they took to the Highveld pitch.
And once the dust had settled on a fixture that delivered exactly the kind of fluctuations in standards and energy you get in these virgin stages of the local season, when the early February sun is both high and uncompromisingly warm, that good sportsman and captain of the Lions, JC Janse van Rensburg, had the good grace to wish the beaten visitors good luck for the Super Rugby campaign.
No, he didn’t even spoil the bonhomie by muttering “you’ll need it”.
He wasn’t required to - long before this particular match took place, after all, the vast majority of reasonable-minded critics knew that the Kings, minus even the luxury of a Currie Cup Premier Division campaign preceding it, might well face a very traumatic ride in the three-nation competition.
Those sages will also be mindful that in the highly likely event that the Lions and Kings square off again in a two-legged promotion/relegation duel a few months up the drag, emotions will run significantly higher.
People with special axes to grind over the Kings’ presence in Super Rugby 2013 will probably dine out on Saturday’s outcome gleefully enough, as the result was a reasonable reflection of the Lions’ superiority - and remember that the Jo’burgers, so seldom leading lights in the competition anyway, are currently missing some stellar contracted players operating on a loan basis for other sides for the moment.
But let it also be said, by way of necessary balance, that this was also nothing like the humiliation the anti-Kings brigade had doubtless wished for.
If the Kings are indeed going to be lame ducks in scoreboard terms against all or most Super Rugby comers, those who do wish them good fortune will have been gladdened to see evidence in the Big Smoke that the expected “corpse” will at least wriggle fairly spiritedly in the SA conference.
They will have to give in plenty of times, but they also won’t give up.
Twice trailing by a relatively gory margin of 20 points against the Lions, they hit back each time to close the gap significantly, and as late as the 74th minute a come-from-behind triumph even flickered for a short time when the score read 34-31 to the hosts.
Few of the Kings players who did duty on Saturday will be routine first-teamers once they start in the big league: suddenly infuse such surnames as Watson, Sykes, Vergallo, Murray, Catrakilis, Maku, Killian and Strauss and, who knows, maybe even the outcome at Ellis Park this weekend would have been entirely different.
What we got in team composition terms from the Port Elizabeth-based troops against the Lions was largely a collection of peripheral parts: squad men, some of whom look to have promise and others who, yes, probably will “snap” when the heat of Super Rugby is cranked up and their more modest credentials are exposed.
The combo who visited Johannesburg will be chuffed about certain aspects of their showing: the Kings occasionally ran some bright, creative counter-attacking lines and they got the imaginary “bonus point” for dotting down four times.
Trouble is, they also leaked six.
Much of that was because their pack found it ominously hard to achieve front-foot status - the Kings were all too often in reverse gear (ouch, sometimes of the ‘turbo’ kind) in the scrums, could not compete effectively on the Lions’ lineout throw, and also found it hard bringing to earth such committed enemy ball-carriers as the characteristically restless Derick Minnie and 122kg second-row slab Hendrik Roodt.
It went a long way to explaining why tries of the mauling variety came all too easily at times for the Lions.
Alan Solomons and the rest of his brains trust will simply be pleased this emotion-charged game is out of the way - a battle they’d clearly pre-decided they wouldn’t be sucked into with too much testosterone or the most elite of their resources.
Much more important now is their focus on trying to winkle out a morale-boosting, winning start when the traditionally ho-hum Western Force come to Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on February 23.
If they give away six tries in that tussle ... now that is where real angst would quickly creep in, wouldn’t it?*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing
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