History will be made when the Southern Kings host the Western Force in their first ever Super Rugby match in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
The debutants’ road to Super Rugby has been a tumultuous one, filled with political potholes and littered with controversy.
The Eastern Cape franchise feel their inclusion in the Southern Hemisphere’s pre-eminent provincial tournament is long overdue, while those in Lions’ country - and several other regions of South Africa - believe the decision is devoid of merit.
It’s been the major talking point in South Africa since it was confirmed last August, but the time for talk is over. On Saturday, it’s put up or shut up time for the Kings, an opportunity for the newcomers to silence the critics and prove they belong.
Hurricanes v Blues
(Westpac Stadium, Wellington - kick-off; 19.35; 06.30 GMT)
When you talk about a new-look side, no team have undertaken a greater facelift than the Blues. A new coach (John Kirwan), captain (Ali Williams) and halfback pairing signal the dawn of a new era for the under-achieving Auckland franchise.
There are fresh faces aplenty, but in star recruit Piri Weepu, who will play his 100th Super Rugby game against his former team, Williams, Rene Ranger, Charlie Faumuina and Peter Saili they have experienced campaigners to lead the revolution.
The Blues are in a similar situation that the Hurricanes were in last season, rank outsiders of which nothing special is expected. They can either feed off that, as the ‘Canes did, or let it consume them and their body language on Saturday will speak volumes in this regard.
The ‘Canes, conversely , are in a better position than they were last year. The squad have largely stayed intact, have a season of experience under their belt as a unit and have bolstered their front row stocks with the signing of All Black prop Ben Franks, who will make his franchise Super Rugby debut on Saturday.
Losing Cory Jane to injury for the entire season is a cruel blow but one the ‘Canes can overcome and continue their rise back to relevancy this year.
Prediction: The key to victory in this match lies in the battle of the halfback pairings. TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett formed a fantastic, exuberant combination for the ‘Canes last year. Weepu has more than double the caps of the Hurricanes pair combined, but as a combination with Chris Noakes the Blues duo give up a considerable amount of experience. We can‘t see the Blues win this one first up on the road and earmark the Hurricanes to come good by nine points.
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Alapati Leiua, 13 Conrad Smith (captain), 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Brad Shields, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Victor Vito, 5 Jason Eaton, 4 Jeremy Thrush, 3 Ben May, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben Franks.
Replacements: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Reggie Goodes, 18 Mark Reddish, 19 Faifili Levave, 20 Chris Smylie, 21 James Marshall, 22 Reynold Lee-Lo.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (captain), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tom McCartney.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Angus Ta'avao, 18 Liaki Moli, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Bryn Hall, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Jackson Willison.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand), Nick Briant (New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)
Reds v Waratahs
(Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane - kick-off; 18.40; 08.40 GMT)
The Waratahs can expect to face a fired up Reds side in their season opener, with the match themed as the Reds Heritage Round as part of Queensland Rugby's 130th anniversary celebrations.
As if this memorable first home game of the season isn’t enough motivation in itself, the 2011 champions will also be hell-bent to bounce back from their defeat to the Brumbies in Canberra last weekend.
It may still be early days, but in the context of the Reds’ bid to retain their Australian Conference title, they need to win this one against their arch rivals at home.
The Reds will be buoyed by a bumper home crowd, an exceptional home record, having won 21 of their past 24 games at Suncorp Stadium, and lock Rob Simmons’ personal milestone of playing his 50 Super Rugby match.
The Waratahs, too, have several additional factors spurring them on besides getting one over the old foe, not least gifting new coach Michael Cheika a winning Super Rugby debut and new captain Dave Dennis a perfect start to his leadership role.
The Sydney side have an air of mystique about them heading into Saturday’s showdown which should aid their cause. Under Michael Foley, the Waratahs regressed in large part due to their one-dimensional gameplan.
Boosted by Rugby League convert Israel Folau, who will make his Super Rugby bow against the Reds, they showed welcome attacking intent in their pre-season matches, so it will be interesting to be see what tactics the ‘Tahs employ this weekend.
Prediction: Given that it will be the Reds’ second match, they ought to be more relaxed and refamiliarised with the pace and intensity of Super Rugby. The Waratahs won’t have that luxury, but they have the proverbial joker in the pack in Folau, who could be utilised as a strike runner or a decoy, as well as fellow star recruit Michael Hooper to target the breakdown. In what will be an intriguing contest, home ground advantage will prove the difference and see the Reds register a five-point win.
Reds: 15 Mike Harris, 14 Dom Shipperley, 13 Chris Feauai-Sautia, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Digby Ioane, 10 Quade Cooper, 9 Ben Lucas, 8 Jake Schatz, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Eddie Quirk, 5 Rob Simmons, 4 Ed O'Donoghue, 3 James Slipper (captain), 2 Saia Faingaa, 1 Greg Holmes.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 Albert Anae, 18 Adam Wallace-Harrison, 19 Jarrad Butler, 20 Nick Frisby, 21 Jono Lance, 22 Luke Morahan.
Waratahs: 15 Israel Folau, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 12 Tom Carter, 11 Tom Kingston, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Brendan McKibbin, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Dave Dennis (captain), 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Jeremy Tilse.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Benn Robinson, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Mitchell Chapman, 20 Lopeti Timani, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 Ben Volavola.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Andrew Lees (Australia), Rohan Hoffmann (Australia)
TMO: Steve Leszczynski (Australia)
Cheetahs v Sharks
(Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein - kick-off; 17.05; 15.05 GMT)
Last year’s finalists the Sharks will look to start 2013 on a winning note as they travel to Bloemfontein to battle the Cheetahs at the Free State Stadium.
Historical significance aside, this will be the match of the day.
Blistering hot and dry weather is forecast, ideal conditions for a spectacle of enterprising rugby between two attack-orientated teams.
The Sharks boast eight Springboks in their starting line-up, including the returning Ryan Kankowski, back from a six-month stint in Japan, and four more on the bench and are thus favourites to come out on top.
The Cheetahs have long been considered the Sharks’ bogey side, but in recent seasons the Durban side have consistently gotten the upper hand and will head to Bloemfontein brimming with confidence.
Cheetahs backline coach Hawies Fourie told this website they are determined to regain that edge and said Saturday is the perfect opportunity to turn the tables on their fancied visitors and set the tone for a successful season.
“The past few years the Sharks have beaten us in Super Rugby [four consecutive wins for the Durban outfit] and in the Currie Cup they also won more often,” said Fourie.
“Before that the Cheetahs and Free State [in the Currie Cup] had a good record against the Sharks. However, they have had the edge over us in recent years and that is a trend we would like to change.”
The Cheetahs edged the Stormers and lost to the Bulls in their two pre-season friendlies while the Sharks recorded landslide wins over the Pumas and the Leopards.
Fourie said an aspect of their game they worked on this week was their play at the breakdown. With Springbok fetcher Heinrich Brussow still unavailable and a high-tempo affair expected, Fourie believes the battle at the breakdown will be crucial to the outcome of the match.
“Against the Bulls, at the breakdown, we were not good enough in retaining our own ball. Too often we got slow ball or at times we had too few players at the breakdown,” he said.
“We have worked on getting numbers to the ball and recycle the ball quickly. If you want to break down their defensive wall we will need to speed up the recycling at the breakdown.”
While a player of Brussow’s calibre will be missed, the Cheetahs will have ace flyhalf Johan Goosen and prop Coenie Oosthuizen at their disposal after the Springbok duo passed a fitness test earlier this week.
Goosen has been named in the run-on side and his duel with Pat Lambie at No.10 is arguably the most anticipated positional battle of the weekend.
They have an excellent leader and world-class hooker in Springbok vice-captain Adriaan Strauss and exciting strike runners like Raymond Rhule and Johann Sadie, both of whom will make their franchise Super Rugby debuts, in a potent backline that includes the mercurial Willie le Roux.
Prediction: This will be a high-scoring, thrill-a-minute fixture that will ultimately come down to defence and discipline. The Cheetahs have well documented defensive deficiencies that we expect will be exploited by the visitors and although the hosts will show plenty of heart, we tip the Sharks to get the win by seven points.
Cheetahs: 15 Hennie Daniller, 14 Willie le Roux, 13 Johann Sadie, 12 Robert Ebersohn, 11 Raymond Rhule, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Piet van Zyl, 8 Philip van der Walt, 7 Pieter Labuschagne, 6 Frans Viljoen, 5 Francois Uys, 4 Lodewyk de Jager, 3 Lourens Adriaanse, 2 Adriaan Strauss (captain), 1 Trevor Nyakane.
Replacements: 16 Ryno Barnes, 17 Coenie Oosthuizen, 18 Waltie Vermeulen, 19 Johannes Prinsloo, 20 Sarel Pretorius, 21 Elgar Watts, 22 Ryno Benjamin.
Sharks: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 JP Pietersen, 13 Paul Jordaan, 12 Francois Steyn (captain), 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Cobus Reinach, 8 Ryan Kankowski, 7 Marcell Coetzee, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Anton Bresler, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Tendai Mtawarira.
Replacements: 16 Kyle Cooper, 17 Wiehahn Herbst, 18 Pieter-Steph du Toit, 19 Jean Deysel, 20 Charl McLeod, 21 Meyer Bosman, 22 Odwa Ndungane.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Jason Jaftha (South Africa), Tiaan Jonker (South Africa)
TMO: Gerrie Coetzee (South Africa)
Southern Kings v Western Force
(Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth - kick-off; 19.10; 17.10 GMT)
History suggests that the Kings are in for a disappointing debut despite having home ground advantage.
The men from Port Elizabeth on Saturday become the fourth new franchise to join the Super Rugby regulars following the debuts of the Western Force and countrymen the Cheetahs in 2006 and the Melbourne Rebels in 2011.
Their results in the pre-season have not inspired much confidence; unimpressive victories over the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (28-12) and an SWD Franchise XV (29-13) followed by losses to the Lions (41-31) and Griquas (30-27).
Add to that the fact that none of the three teams who have been added to the Super Rugby fray since 2006 were able to win their debut fixtures, and the likelihood of a Kings victory - albeit against a Western Force side who are once again expected to finish in the bottom three - seems slim.
The Cheetahs, Force and Rebels all had home ground advantage to draw on yet they all suffered the same fate - losing their maiden matches 30-18, 25-10 and 43-0 to the Bulls, Brumbies and Waratahs respectively.
Will the Kings, comprising a handful of experienced campaigners and a host of young upstarts, be able to buck the trend?
Names like skipper Luke Watson, Bandise Maku, Steven Sykes, Demetri Catrakilis, Andries Strauss and Ronnie Cooke - with imports Daniel Adongo and Hadleigh Parkes on the pine - offer a glimmer of hope.
The newcomers would also have received a shot of confidence after watching their first foes fall to the Rebels in the season opener last Friday, and would have noted the Perth side’s alarmingly poor discipline.
But a clear lack of cohesion and a significant step up in competition, from the second-tier First Division to Super Rugby, point to heartache for the hosts.
Prediction: While they lack the experience the Force have gained over six seasons of Super Rugby, the Kings have home ground advantage and the element of surprise on their side. All things considered, they won’t have a better opportunity to secure a maiden win all season and one fears that if they miss out on Saturday, the Kings could be looking at a winless campaign. The newcomers will leave it all on the field, but we have a gut feeling the street-smart Force will find a way to win. It will be close, but the Force will spoil the Kings’ party and snatch a three-point win.
Southern Kings: 15 SP Marais, 14 Sergeal Petersen, 13 Ronnie Cooke, 12 Andries Strauss, 11 Marcello Sampson, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Luke Watson (captain), 7 Wimpie van der Walt, 6 Cornell du Preez, 5 Steven Sykes, 4 David Bulbring, 3 Kevin Buys, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16 Edgar Marutlulle, 17 Jaco Engels, 18 Daniel Adongo, 19 Jacques Engelbrecht, 20 Johan Herbst, 21 George Whitehead, 22 Hadleigh Parkes.
Western Force: TBC
Referee: Lourens van der Merwe (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Stuart Berry (South Africa), Christie du Preez (South Africa)
TMO: Johann Meuwessen (South Africa)