Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - Perhaps the best way for the Kings to approach their unenviable task of beating the Lions suitably convincingly at Ellis Park on Saturday (15:00) will be to view the Highveld challenge almost as a 'tour' match.
The dice is now loaded against the 2013 Super Rugby newcomers preserving their status for next season, after the Johannesburg-based side left Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium last Friday with a 26-19 advantage in the two-leg promotion/relegation scrap.
Yet both sides will be well aware that things certainly aren’t done and dusted: after all, the Kings reserved some of their most inspired performances of ordinary season for very distant pastures, and may try to rediscover some sense of travel spirit when they tackle the second leg.
The Eastern Cape outfit had their most productive and dynamic week or so of the entire roster while in Australia in early April, first earning a terrific 28-28 draw in Canberra with eventual finalists the Brumbies - a better result than the Bulls could manage in two cracks at them this year, let’s not lose sight of! - and then pipping the Rebels 30-27 in a Melbourne heart-stopper.
They were results that seemed to convince many Antipodean critics, at the very least, of the legitimacy of their presence in the competition, a status that is undeniably now hanging by a relative thread considering the magnitude of the job ahead in the Big Smoke.
The Kings must target either downing the Lions by at least eight points on the scoreboard, or with a four-try bonus point.
The latter seems a particularly unlikely prospect, given that the side from the Friendly City have been try-shy for most of the campaign and worryingly only got more impotent in attacking terms, in fact, towards the tail-end of their conference campaign.
Only the Western Force (26) registered fewer tries than the Kings’ 27, whilst the Lions will doubtless be chewing - encouraged - on the fact that the bottom-placed fellow-South Africans also leaked more tries than anyone else (69).
Maybe the Lions plan a conservative sort of game to simply strangle the life out of their foes this weekend, but they may be just as strongly advised to really have a go at the suspect Kings defence - for instance, if the hosts cross the whitewash a couple of times early in the return clash, it really should be 'good night nurse'.
There is also an understandable school of thought that with prodigious points-compiler Demetri Catrakilis
ruled out of contention through injury for the Kings’ flyhalf jersey, the visitors are even more up against it.
It is true that Catrakilis has meant a lot to them at times this season, not only for his accuracy off the tee but also for his tactical generalship, not to mention a smart ability to wriggle through occasional gaps at relatively close quarters.
But given his slightly limited physical dimensions (1.79m, 85kg), it is not in his nature to automatically stand close to the gain line in the manner a Henry Honiball
, Butch James
or Peter Grant
-type of pivot might relish rather more often.
His likely, seemingly logical stand-in this Saturday, George Whitehead, is not necessarily the most muscular character to operate in the demanding channel either, but he is a fair bit taller at 1.85m and may just be coaxed into receiving the ball a little flatter in the interests of greater thrust and momentum in three-quarter play for the Kings.
Clearly they are the team under more pressure to make the running - literally so? - in game two, because if they can’t score tries at Ellis Park they are unlikely to achieve the required turnaround job, unless a freakish number of penalty opportunities come their way and Whitehead (or whoever else deputises for Catrakilis in the department) bangs them over ad nauseam to still ensure a crucially clear-cut win.
Few would dispute that Catrakilis is probably the better flyhalf than the workmanlike and positionally versatile Whitehead, all round, but the latter has also served the cause with some aplomb when required to do so in their taxing maiden Super Rugby season.
Indeed, is there a bit of a good omen to be banked down PE way from the fact that Bloemfontein-schooled Whitehead (like Catrakilis, 24) was the starting No 10 in that momentous draw - and with the Kings cheekily registering three tries to two – at Canberra Stadium?
Apart from the meritorious, massively unexpected result itself, the Kings provided some of their most vibrant, fleet-footed and urgent rugby of the year on that occasion.
Lions coach Johan Ackermann might do well, when you think about it, to show his charges the re-run of that enthralling game, just as a shock tactic against any complacency from his charges for red-letter day at Ellis Park ...*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing