Kings v Bulls worth top billing

    2013-04-17 13:11

    Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

    Cape Town – This might make an interesting little pub quiz question: how many of the Kings team which began the “grudge friendly” against the Lions in early February will also run out at the start of the appealing Super Rugby derby against the Bulls at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on Saturday?

    This answer is a fat zero.

    It is an indication of how significantly the landscape has changed – and overwhelmingly for the better – for the competition’s newest and most hotly-debated franchise since then.

    The Kings have won over plenty of detractors and are getting laudable results thus far in their maiden campaign in the harsh competition, which is a far cry from the initial expectations from doomsayers, who had a good, additional snigger when the marginalised Lions knocked over the Eastern Cape outfit 41-31 on that sunny summer day of February 9 at Ellis Park, and before a near-20,000 crowd.

    Director of rugby Alan Solomons and the rest of the Kings’ brains trust had cleverly hoodwinked the SA public on that occasion, however, as they put out a decidedly second-string combination for an emotion-charged fixture from which they had little to really gain ahead of the Super Rugby season itself.

    Instead they largely cocooned the vast majority of players who would be charged with earning respect in their maiden exposure to the big southern hemisphere tournament.

    When the Kings do battle with the Bulls on Saturday, only three of their match-day 22 – and all of them replacements -- will have also seen service in that Johannesburg encounter: tighthead prop Grant Kemp, lock Rynier Bernardo and wing Marcello Sampson.

    The team named this week for a tussle expected to attract a near-full house in Port Elizabeth, frankly, looks a seasoned, highly credible first-class combination and one only enhanced by several members punching spiritedly above their anticipated pre-season “weights” in ability.

    While being able to announce an unchanged starting XV on Wednesday from the team which saw off the Cheetahs at Loftus was a pleasing development for the Bulls, they don’t look too enormously the stronger side on paper under current circumstances – certainly not enough to seriously spook the spirited home outfit on those grounds.

    Astute observers are likely to still install the mid-table, three-time champions as favourites, but it is also quite feasible that the PE clash, which in some respects earns “top TV billing” on Saturday as it is the later kick-off (19:10) in South Africa, may turn out closer in scoreboard terms than the preceding derby between the Sharks and Cheetahs in Durban at 17:05.

    The Kings have named a formidable loose trio, with captain Luke Watson back at No 8 for his first start since the opening-fixture victory over the Force, and joining the bang-in-form Wimpie van der Walt and Cornell du Preez, with “supersub” Jacques Engelbrecht also lurking to punch some holes during the second half.

    This alliance will be more than keen to measure themselves against the Bulls’ all-Bok trio of captain Pierre Spies, Dewald Potgieter and Deon Stegmann, with recent international camp call-up Arno Botha their own “impact” loosie later in the scrap.

    The Kings’ scrummaging ethic is now pretty well established, with the recall to the starting XV of experienced Kevin Buys at tighthead and Bandise Maku at hooker signalling their intention to take on the Bulls at what has been an area of some concern for them in the past two or three years since the disappearance from Pretoria of people like Gurthro Steenkamp and the two tight-five Bothas, Gary and Bakkies.

    Should the Kings get some go-forward at the set-piece, they should also feel reasonably chipper about the possibility of their halfbacks, Shaun Venter and Demetri Catrakilis, being no less influential strategically than Morne Steyn and Jano Vermaak; the latter has passed a fitness test to take his spot at No 9, alongside the stalwart Test pivot.

    In his regular column on Sport24, Solomons has already made no bones about the Kings wishing to “pitch up” in the engine room.

    He said: “I believe our best approach is to front them physically; the Bulls pride themselves on direct, confrontational rugby.”

    We could be in for a truly rousing contest in the Friendly City ... far more so than many who witnessed that Lions-Kings pre-season affair all those weeks ago would have dared to envisage at the time, when a big lobby nationwide liked to the believe “the Kings will take 50 every week”.

    *Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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