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Lions ‘war’: Solly boxes clever
Alan Solomons (Gallo Images)
Cape Town - No Luke Watson, no powder keg?
The likely absence of the ever-controversial Kings captain from Saturday’s spicy “friendly” against the Super Rugby-marginalised Lions at Ellis Park may drag some of the emotion out of the occasion.
But not a whole lot ... the very match-up between these franchises, in a situation where one has replaced the other in the high-profile southern hemisphere competition, ensures at least a fair amount of unique, special needle.
Might it even turn a fair bit ugly? We won’t know until hostilities actually get underway (14:15), although the Kings, in particular, will understandably be anxious for it to simply develop into a pre-season limb-loosener as they try to keep their primary focus on the looming tournament-proper.
But the visitors will also suspect, probably with good reason, that a kitchen sink rather than a late-summer marshmallow is headed their way in the fixture rather un-sexily billed the “SA Franchise Challenge” and live on SuperSport.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the Lions will inevitably view the clash as an opportunity to get one over the Port Elizabeth-based outfit psychologically, ahead of the two-legged, highly likely promotion/relegation tussle between the two in late July and early August.
Most good judges, after all, find it massively hard to envisage the rookie Kings - despite their necessary influx of some previously proven customers at Super Rugby level - getting the better of any of the traditional big three on the South African conference table, leaving only the Cheetahs as possible rivals for bottom rung on the ladder and the attached, dubious “right” to take part in the 160-minute playoff against the Lions some way up the drag.
Alan Solomons, the Kings’ director of rugby, is as shrewd a brain as exists out there, so it comes as no surprise that several of his most treasured soldiers - the names of Watson, flyhalf Demetri Catrakilis
and lock Steven Sykes have been mentioned - are supposedly on the mend from niggles and thus probably “unavailable” for the Johannesburg slug-out.
Of course there may be medical legitimacy, to varying degrees, for such blue-chip players to sit out the fixture anyway, but if they are, indeed, simply being cocooned from a potentially difficult day at the office before Super Rugby even starts, it makes rather good sense if you place yourself in the Kings’ shoes.
Yes, beating the Lions would be a nice, morale-lifting statement, and the expected intensity of the assault from their foes might also be viewed as a handy preparatory tool for the imminent hurly-burly of Super Rugby.
But Solomons has always been a bigger-picture man ... and that bigger picture means, I fancy, that he wants to keep as much sting as possible out of an occasion where good old South African provincialism will be at its most spiteful in the willing eyes of many (and especially those partial to the red and white jersey of Saturday’s home outfit, of course).
“Solly” is sure to be well aware that a Lions victory over a full-strength Kings XV would only crank up the tempo on the moral outrage - rightly or wrongly - that swirls around his team’s debut season in the big time at the expense of the side from the country’s biggest metropolis.
So if he holds back some of his most stellar names from the match, he simultaneously keeps some insurance against ridicule ...
not only that, but he could also keep a reasonable lid on any sense of despondency in his camp if they lose on Saturday.
Whatever happens in scoreboard terms this weekend, the fact remains that the Kings have an unenviable, lone season to try to secure their future in Super Rugby.
In that respect, their tournament opener against iffy Australians the Western Force at Nelson Mandela
Bay Stadium on February 23 shapes up as a significantly more critical date than the intended booby trap on the Highveld this weekend.
Lose that one first-up and, ouch, it really could be a long old slog for the Kings.
Saturday’s friendly “matters” more to the aggrieved, dumped Lions.
I believe Alan Solomons knows that.
While his team are unlikely to want to roll over to too great a degree at Ellis Park, they may also be strongly urged not to bang too many heads against the wall just before kickoff.
There’s just not enough at stake on Saturday, in real terms, for this to be a damaging “Gallipoli” for them.
Psst, but it also doesn’t mean I won’t be watching ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing