PORT ELIZABETH - “It’s the last bloody game and we have to win it.”
Those will be Southern Kings captain Lionel Cronje’s parting words to his team as they run out for their last Super Rugby match against the Cheetahs at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
In what can only be described as the “battle of the damned”, the Kings and Cheetahs will perform their final act in Super Rugby as they bow out of the competition as the two South African teams who have received the axe and will now look to play in the northern hemisphere in the not-too-distant future.
It will certainly be an emotionally charged encounter with both sides desperate to leave the Super Rugby scene on a high but more so Cronje who will also be leaving South African shores to join Japanese outfit Toyota Verblitz to rekindle his relationship with former Springbok mentor Jake White.
Just like his team, Cronje has enjoyed a standout season where he has defied the odds to become one of the country’s top performers in the number 10 jersey to the surprise of many rugby pundits.
Cronje’s exploits earned a call up to the SA ‘A’ side last month in their two nil series win over the French Barbarians and even though Cronje’s talent will now be lost to the country, the ever jovial former Queen’s College pupil says he will certainly return to the Kings to give back to a franchise that not only resuscitated his career but allowed his star to shine bright again.
“Unfortunately it is a decision I had to make some time back. I would love to come back to the Eastern Cape and represent the Kings again. I come from a background where I need to be loyal to people who entrust me with opportunity. I’d like to come back and give more back to the Eastern Cape if that opportunity arises, I would love to do that,” Cronje said.
A seasoned journeyman flyhalf having played for the Free State Cheetahs, Stormers, Blue Bulls, Golden Lions, Brumbies and Sharks before joining the Kings after spending all of last year in the wilderness and without a team, the 28-year-old Cronje attributes his rich vein of form to his teammates who have embraced playing positive rugby and enjoying the game in the process.
It is with a positive mindset and the love of the game that has seen the Kings enjoy their best season ever in the competition with victories over the Waratahs in Sydney, the Sharks in Port Elizabeth, the Jaguares in Buenos Aires and the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld and it will be that same mindset that they will approach their final game against the Cheetahs.
“Credit to the team. The guys have embraced the way that I want to play and the way that the guys next to each other want to play. We’ve created an environment where it is positive and the team culture is about being with each other, striving for excellence, playimg at a high level and enjoying it,” said Cronje.
"We are also not getting carried away by the professional environment where there is constant pressure all the time. It is about going out playing, challenging yourself and understanding that there is so much talent in South Africa, not just in the Eastern Cape, and the guys need to go out there and play positive rugby and enjoy the game again. That is what we have done."
And the Kings will be fortunate in being able to call on the same group of men that stunned the Bulls last weekend with only one change to the starting line-up with lock Wilhelm van der Sluys returning from injury in place of Irne Herbst who could start from the bench pending a late fitness test while Lubabalo Mtyanda switches from number five lock to number four.
The Cheetahs, on the other hand, have called on their big guns with Springbok flanks Oupa Mohoje and Uzair Cassiem starting along with flyhalf Fred Zeilinga while William Small-Smith will start in the unfamiliar position of wing after Sergeal Petersen failed to recover from a hamstring injury.
"They get more space to play in and the freedom they get from their coaching staff has played a part in it,” said Cheetahs coach Franco Smith.
"They had a lot of continuity with their players and Lionel Cronje has played a big part as well as Chris Cloete and their forwards played well to give the exciting backs a chance. They are very well-coached. I don’t think you will do well in a competition if the coaching isn’t quality."
Kings team: Malcolm Jaer, Wandile Mjekevu, Berton Klaasen, Luzuko Vulindlu, Makazole Mapimpi, Lionel Cronje (captain), Louis Schreuder, Andisa Ntsila, Tyler Paul, Chris Cloete, Wilhelm van der Sluys, Lubabalo Mtyanda, Ross Geldenhuys, Michael Willemse, Mzamo Majola. Replacements: Martin Bezuidenhout, Schalk Ferreira, Dayan van der Westhuizen, Irne Herbst/Mzwanele Zito, Thembelani Bholi, Rudi van Rooyen, Masixole Banda, Waylon Murray/Yaw Penxe.
Cheetahs team: Clayton Blommetjies, William Small-Smith, Francois Venter (captain), Clinton Swart, Raymond Rhule, Fred Zeilinga, Tian Meyer, Niell Jordaan, Oupa Mohoje, Uzair Cassiem, Reniel Hugo, Carl Wegner, Johan Coetzee, Elandre Huggett, Ox Nche. Replacements: Joseph Dweba, Charles Marais, Tom Botha, Armandt Koster, Junior Pokomela, Chris Dry, Ruan van Rensburg, Niel Marais.