They now have the opportunity to prove they can gain promotion into a top-class competition the old fashioned way
The Eastern Province Kings will look to take their first step towards national vindication when they face the Free State Cheetahs in the opening Currie Cup promotion-relegation match in Bloemfontein on Friday night.
An undefeated First Division campaign which culminated with a thrilling 26-25 win over the Pumas in last Saturday’s Final have earned the Kings an opportunity to claim a place in next year’s six-team Currie Cup competition.
Standing in their way are the Cheetahs, who were consigned to the foot end of the Currie Cup table following their 36-15 defeat to Western Province last weekend. Fortunately for Naka Drotske and his charges, they kick-off the two-legged series on home soil, an advantage they will welcome as they will be devoid of momentum.
More significantly, the pressure will be squarely on this weekend’s hosts. They have everything to lose while the Kings have everything to gain, a fact that makes the men from Port Elizabeth a particularly dangerous side.
Hawies Fourie, backline coach of the Cheetahs, feels the Kings will fancy their underdog status and believes they are an underrated outfit.
“I see many people in the media suggest we should win easily. I disagree, I feel that's a long way from the truth. We will have to play very well on the day to win,” Fourie told this website.
It’s clear that the Cheetahs have done their homework on their foes, Fourie remarking that the Kings were a cut above the rest in the First Division and highlighting their defence as a major strength in their game.
“The Kings and Pumas were in a different league in that [First Division] competition. They are unbeaten, having played to a draw twice against the Pumas and then beat them by one point in the Final and their defensive record is outstanding, as they conceded 31 tries in 15 games and the Pumas 48 in the same number.”
The Cheetahs’ objective, first and foremost, will be to draw first blood at home. However, attacking rugby will be rewarded in that a drawn series would come down to points-difference or, if necessary, the team who scored the most tries.
As a result, any thoughts that the two attack-minded teams may have had to switch to a conservative, finals-esque gameplan would have been dismissed in an instant.
“It makes this week just so much more important,” Fourie said of the series format. “We will have to get up by four points in our home game to take pressure off our visit to Port Elizabeth next week.”
Fourie stressed that the Cheetahs have a proud history in the Currie Cup, a competition they have won on four occasions (one shared), and said they will do whatever it takes over the next fortnight to solidify their place in the world’s oldest provincial rugby competition.
“We definitely don't want to be in a situation where a Super Rugby team doesn't play Currie Cup rugby. It is obviously not ideal, but it had to happen with one of the six teams,” he said.
“We are in that situation and must deal with it. There is plenty to play for, for the players and coaches. We want to play in the Currie Cup competition and we have a proud record in Currie Cup rugby. It would be terrible for Free State if we don't do it [retain Currie Cup status].”
The Kings’ mission, in contrast, will be to simultaneously return to Currie Cup rugby and silence the naysayers who deem them unworthy of such status, let alone their inclusion in Super Rugby next year.
It’s the controversial manner in which they were promoted to Super Rugby - at the expense of the Lions - that has made the Port Elizabeth outfit the most polarising provincial sports team in South Africa.
Loved by some, loathed by others, they now have the opportunity to prove they can gain promotion into a top-class competition the old fashioned way, by earning it, and they might just win over some fans in the process should they be successful.
Both teams will field understrength sides due to injury, the Cheetahs missing a dozen of key players and the Kings forced to do without the likes of inspirational leaders Luke Watson and Darron Nell.
Fourie, however, said the incentive of a place in the Currie Cup will ensure that the absence of big-name players won’t detract from the spectacle.
“They have so much to play for that whatever names appear on paper [the team sheets] won't make a difference. It will be all about who has the best mindset and who execute their gameplan the best on the day.
“Names on paper we don't have much left either - there are 12 players who would have featured in the matchday 22 on Friday that are unavailable. It will be nowhere near our best team that will take to the field … that is not important to me, that is the same for us and them.
“You simply can't afford to go into the game with the wrong attitude. If your mindset is right and your execution is spot on, then you will give yourself a good chance of winning.”
Format: After completion of the promotion-relegation series, the team with the most log points accumulated during these two matches will play in the Premier Division next year.
In the event of an equal number of log points, the winner will be determined as follows:
a) the best net to points difference, i.e. points for minus points against, and if equal;
b) the team who scored the most tries, and if equal;
c) the status quo will remain.
Players to Watch:
For Free State Cheetahs: Robert Ebersohn and Raymond Rhule are the hosts’ primary strike weapons in the back division and they are bound to ask questions of the Kings’ defence. Nico Scheepers will fulfil an important role as goal-kicker while the returning Pieter Labuschagne will be looked upon to stop ball carriers dead in their tracks and provide go-forward ball on attack.
For Eastern Province Kings: Samoan international Paul Perez’s pace and power makes him a dangerous runner out on the right wing. Another foreign star, Clint Newland, anchors the Kings’ scrum. The former Highlanders and New Zealand Maori tighthead cuts an imposing figure at 1.96m and well north of 120kg and boasts the technical scrummaging prowess to plough through opposing front rows.
Head to Head: Look no further than the battle between Sias Ebersohn, in his swansong appearance for the Cheetahs at the Free State Stadium, and 2012 Varsity Cup Player that Rocks, Wesley Dunlop. The pivots will play a key role in dictating terms with the boot and unleashing their respective backlines and will need to vary their play to keep the opposition guessing. Sarel Pretorius’ duel with former Cheetahs scrumhalf Falie Oelschig will be scintillating, with the former having a speed advantage and the latter a solid kicking game and a wealth of experience. Up front, the confrontation between Cheetahs captain Adriaan Strauss and veteran Hannes Franklin promises to be a physical affair.
Recent results: Have not met in Currie Cup matches in recent years.
Prediction: If the Kings get off to a strong start and lead heading into the break, the Cheetahs could potentially buckle under the pressure. Having said that, it will be extremely difficult for the Kings to win in Bloemfontein without the injured Watson, not only from a leadership perspective but also scoring wise, as he was second only to Leopards wing Allister Kettledas on the First Division try-scoring list with 13 touchdowns. Despite missing players such as Springboks Coenie Oosthuizen and Heinrich Brussow, the Cheetahs will be too strong for their visitors and should win by about 12 points.
Free State Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Nico Scheepers, 13 Robert Ebersohn, 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Sias Ebersohn, 9 Sarel Pretorius, 8 Phillip van der Walt, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Hendro Scholtz, 5 Izak van der Merwe, 4 Francois Uys, 3 Ross Geldenhuys, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Marcel van der Merwe.
Replacements: 16 Hercu Liebenberg, 17 Schalk van der Merwe, 18 Carl Wegner, 19 Davon Raubenheimer, 20 Tewis du Bruyn, 21 Phillip Snyman, 22 Rayno Benjamin.
Eastern Province Kings: 15 SP Marais, 14 Paul Perez, 13 Wayne Stevens (captain), 12 Shane Gates, 11 Michael Killian, 10 Wesley Dunlop, 9 Falie Oelschig, 8 Cornell Du Preez, 7 Wimpie van der Walt, 6 Devin Oosthuizen, 5 David Bullbring, 4 Reynier Bernardo, 3 Clint Newland, 2 Hannes Franklin, 1 Jaco Engels.
Replacements: 16 Frank Herne, 17 Andre Schlechter, 18 Wayne van Heerden, 19 Mpho Mbiyozo, 20 Scott Mathie, 21 George Whitehead, 22 Norman Nelson.
Date: Friday, October 19
Venue: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Kick-off: 19.10 (18.10 GMT)
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan
Assistant referees: Lesego Legoete, Rasta Rasivhenge
TMO: Gerrie Coetzee
By Quintin van Jaarsveld