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
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