Preview: Southern Kings v Lions
It is probably stating the obvious, but both the Southern Kings and Lions will require a supreme effort to avoid the dire consequences of failure.
It starts in Port Elizabeth on Friday, when the Kings play hosts, and comes to a conclusion in Johannesburg a week later, when the Lions are at home next Saturday, August 3.
The only fortunate aspect of this is that the loser of Round One gets a second shot. However, the end result is the same: 'No Super Rugby for the loser.'
You could not have asked for two more contrasting teams – the defence-orientated Kings against a all-action attacking Lions outfit.
Kings Director of Rugby Alan Solomons said this week that they have "tailor-made" their strategy for the Lions.
However, he would not say if that means they will discard their territorial, tackle-anything-that-moves approach.
It is probably unlikely, but he wasn't revealing too much.
"For this game – taking into consideration our personnel, the opposition, conditions and the referee – we will tailor-make our game strategy for this particular match," the wily Kings boss told this website in an interview.
Asked about the Lions' all-action, expansive game, he again played his cards close to his chest.
"Yes, they're a team that likes to play with tempo and is very much a momentum team," Solomons said, adding: "We will take cognisance of that in determining our game strategy."
He said the Lions' approach is very similar to the type of rugby the Cheetahs used to play – before the men from Bloemfontein changed to a bit more of a structured game, with more emphasis on defence.
"All approaches and teams have strengths and weaknesses. They [the Lions] have an approach that has been working for them and I'm sure they won't be deviating from that approach."
And just in case there were still any doubt about the Lions' approach, coach Johan Ackermann said they certainly won't be changing at this stage.
"We have been building for so long and worked so hard to get a specific game in place, to do things in a specific way," Ackermann told this website.
"That is what the players are comfortable with and what they know. To expect us to change now would be tantamount to telling the Bulls to change their way of playing.
"The players are very comfortable with our approach and every player must go out there and do his best."
Both coaches admitted there might be a touch of nerves, given what is at stake.
However, they responded with a stock standard: 'We are looking forward to the game', when asked about the possibility that the occasion could get to some individuals.
"We know it will be a tough encounter and they will ask plenty of questions of us," Ackermann said, adding: "There is a debate as to what level we [the Lions] have to raise the bar to, but we are going to go out there, play our game and enjoy it."
While the Kings, given their recent injury setbacks aside, have had an entire season to gel their squad into a unit, the Lions have had to work without a number of key players – who were on loan to other franchises.
Ackermann was adamant that players like Elton Jantjies, Martin Bezuidenhout (back from the Stormers) and Franco van der Merwe (Sharks) have slotted in seamlessly since their return to the fold almost a fortnight ago.
"The advantage was that they started last week," the Lions coach said, adding: "We could take a session of two in which they could observe, look and listen.
"We had the luxury of easing them in, while we also had Monday and Tuesday to work through it with them and where there are issues we could resolve those.
"Elton [Jantjies], Franco [van der Merwe] and Bez [Martin Bezuidenhout] are very professional.
"Some of the things we did also didn't change much and it was easy for them – there were a few calls and some minor tweaks, but generally it went smoothly."
Players to watch:
For the Southern Kings: Given the loss of captains Luke Watson and Andries Strauss, Darron Nell will be at the forefront of all the key decisions in this game. He is an established and respected leader in the Kings set-up. But is his game still good enough? You also can't look past the loose trio of Jacques Engelbrecht, Wimpie van der Walt and Cornell du Preez – who have been the mainstay of their defensive effort all season.
For the Lions: The return from Super Rugby duty will mean Elton Jantjies, Franco van der Merwe and Martin Bezuidenhout will be the players who must step up to the required intensity – as the rest have been playing Vodacom Cup games and practice matches. However, the centre pairing of Nicolaas Hanekom and Dylan des Fountain will be vital in their quest to 'attack' the Kings' fortress.
Head to head: You simply can't look past flyhalf – where Springbok training squad member Demetri Catrakilis (Southern Kings) will like to show he deserves another call-up to the national team when he confronts Bok regular Elton Jantjies (Lions). However, the one area where the Lions may have a real advantage is in the scrums – which means Kevin Buys, Bandise Maku and Schalk Ferreira (Kings) will have to stand firm in the face of a brutal onslaught from one of the most impressive front rows in the country in Julian Redelinghuys, Martin Bezuidenhout and JC Janse van Rensburg (Lions).
2013: Lions won 41-31, Johannesburg
Prediction: It is a classic case of attack against defence and the team that execute its game plan best will triumph. You know both teams will be charged up, but who will calm down first and take control? We feel the Lions may get a little too excited on attack, make a few mistakes and hand the Kings an early lead – which they may just cling on to the end. The Southern Kings to sneak a win, by less than 10 points, leaving it all to play for in next week's return match.
Southern Kings: 15 SP Marais, 14 Hadleigh Parkes, 13 Ronnie Cooke, 12 Shane Gates, 11 Marcello Sampson, 10 Demetri Catrakilis, 9 Shaun Venter, 8 Jacques Engelbrecht, 7 Wimpie van der Walt, 6 Cornell du Preez, 5 David Bulbring, 4 Darron Nell (captain), 3 Kevin Buys, 2 Bandise Maku, 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Replacements: 16 Charl du Plessis, 17 Hannes Franklin, 18 Steven Sykes, 19 Devin Oosthuizen, 20 Nicolas Vergallo, 21 George Whitehead, 22 Waylon Murray.
Lions: 15 Ruan Combrinck, 14 Deon van Rensburg, 13 Nicolaas Hanekom, 12 Dylan des Fountain, 11 Anthony Volmink, 10 Elton Jantjies, 9 Michael Bondesio, 8 Warren Whiteley, 7 Derick Minnie, 6 Jaco Kriel, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Hendrik Roodt, 3 Julian Redelinghuys, 2 Martin Bezuidenhout, 1 JC Janse van Rensburg.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Coetzee, 17 Ruan Dreyer, 18 Willie Britz, 19 Warwick Tecklenburg, 20 Ross Cronje, 21 Marnitz Boshoff, 22 Chrysander Botha.
Date: Friday, July 26
Venue: Mandela Bay Stadium, Port Elizabeth
Kick-off: 19.10 (17.10 GMT)
Expected weather: Pleasant with little or no chance of precipitation. High of 23°C, low of 12°C
Referee: Jaco Peyper
Assistant referees: Jason Jaftha, Sindile Mayende
TMO: Deon van Blommestein
By Jan de Koning