Southern Kings director of rugby Alan Solomons has encouraged his team to live up to expectations when they meet the Lions in the first of their Super Rugby promotion/relegation playoff fixtures on Friday.
In what is being billed as their biggest challenge of the season, the teams clash at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, in Port Elizabeth, in the first of two legs, with a spot in next year’s Super Rugby competition the prize.
The second leg will be played in Johannesburg on August 2 and the team with the most log points after the two games will join the remaining four South African franchises in the 2014 competition.
“This match is critical to both franchises because the consequences of these matches are extremely serious,” Solomons said ahead of the crunch encounter.
“The winners of these two matches remain in Super Rugby and the side that loses is out of Super Rugby.
“And you have to understand the consequences of not playing in Super Rugby, because there is no inspiration to retain young players and no top-class rugby for the public, so the consequences are dire.”
His words were echoed by Lions’ president Kevin de Klerk, who said it had become extremely difficult to retain sponsors and the fans’ interest without the lure of Super Rugby.
The Kings suffered a blow when regular centre and captain Andries Strauss was ruled out of the promotion series, and was replaced by young Shane Gates, with lock Darron Nell taking over as skipper.
The Lions will be desperate to regain their Super Rugby status and have named an experienced line-up for the first encounter, with flyhalf Elton Jantjies and lock Franco van der Merwe set to play key roles.
After seeing the Lions team, Solomons said he was expecting a massive test, but was up to the contest.
“There is no question that the Lions have got some really good players, but I do not think they are better than we are,” he said.
“I think this will be a tight affair that will turn on little things.”
Kings’ centre Ronnie Cooke said the coastal outfit were prepared for a running game from the Lions.
“Elton brings an x-factor to the game that will suit the Lions because they play a running game,” Cooke said. “He could spark something for them.”
Both Solomons and Kings’ coach Matt Sexton said there was a feeling of excitement in the camp, but said they were concentrating on the basics and sticking largely to the game plan which had worked for them this season.
“I think the general feeling we have is excitement, it’s a huge occasion, it’s like a test match or world cup final,” Sexton said.
“The guys are looking forward to the occasion.”
The New Zealander said he did not want to give too much away about the game plan.
“You take each team on their merits and there are opportunities that will be presented during the match and we just need to capitalise on that,” he said.
“The times where we have been successful on the score board are times where we’ve been very clinical in our approach.”
Meanwhile, Lions coach Johan Ackermann is well aware of the implications for the two matches.
“We all know how important it is and the [Lions] players are hungry to get another taste of Super Rugby,” he said. “We can’t hide from the fact that there’s a lot at stake and for both teams there are two important weeks ahead.”
Ackermann has had to weld a side together after many senior players were loaned out during the season and he is hoping the Lions will not have to face the situation again.
“It [defeat] will be a huge blow for either union. In their case, having been in just for one year, then fall out and stop the entire process… it will be an enormous setback. – sapa