PRETORIA – Oh hail the Kings!
It didn’t matter that their Super Rugby fate had been decided the day before. The Southern Kings came to the capital and conquered South Africa’s only Super Rugby dynasty.
It came as no surprise that the Kings emerged 31-30 victors over the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday night.
The Eastern Cape side have battled valiantly all season long, claiming the prized scalps of the former champions the Waratahs in Sydney, the Sharks in Port Elizabeth and the Jaguares in Buenos Aires before dethroning the Bulls at home.
As true and sad as it is that the Kings will no longer be part of Super Rugby next year – they will probably be conquering the unchartered territories of the northern hemisphere – they have seemingly made it their ultimate crusade to leave the competition on their own terms.
And boy did they do that with aplomb.
The visitors wasted no time in laying down the marker from a penalty by captain courageous, flyhalf Lionel Cronjé, who calmly slotted over a penalty in the opening minutes of the game.
And it would be Cronjé who would also have a final say in the game with a drop-goal and two penalties, one coming right at the death to win the game for the Kings.
Cronje epitomised everything about the Kings this season. From a man who was plucked out of the wilderness by Kings coach Deon Davids to revive his career this year, the journeyman pivot marshalled his troops and more often than not made the right decisions and kicked impeccably.
Even though Cronjé had been denied a try in the sixth minute because of a knock-on by Wandile Mjekevu, he was not to be denied his moment to shine when he found himself on the end of a short pass to dive over under the poles.
Cronjé was again in the thick of things in the 34th minute when his well-executed cross-kick pass found the safe hands of Chris Cloete, before the stocky flank threw an inside pass to Malcolm Jaer, who sprinted for the line to give the Kings a comfortable 22-3 lead.
In between Cronje’s heroic acts, the Bulls were not going to allow themselves to go down without a fight after losing four of their seven home matches on what used to be a fortress in their golden years.
The hosts played their part in making this encounter a spectacle for the few but boisterous fans that had gathered to watch the rise of the Kings and the continued fall from grace of the former kings of Super Rugby.
The Bulls may have been denied what would have been one of the tries of the season when Travis Ismaiel rounded off several phases that had started off deep in the Bulls half, but it was not to be as the TMO cited a high tackle by Bulls lock Jason Jenkins on Cronjé, which earned Jenkins 10 minutes in the sin-bin.
It was Jenkins at the end of the first half who scored the hosts’ first try after some sterling work from Ismaiel in keeping the ball alive while having to contend with a handful of would-be Kings defenders.
The Bulls had looked to wrestle the win from the jaws of defeat when they scored another beautiful try by wing Duncan Matthews, before flyhalf Tian Schoeman slotted over a penalty in the 65th minute to see the home side take the lead for the first time.
But Cronjé and the Kings had other ideas and they were not going to go away quietly into the cold and chilly night.
It was then that Cronjé took charge by first slotting over a cheeky drop goal in the 66th minute, which was followed by another penalty six minutes later.
And when the Bulls thought they had secured victory with a Jaco Visagie try in the 77th minute, it was Cronje again who bravely stepped up to kick over the winning penalty and put the shine on one of the Kings’ many crowning moments this season.
Bulls 30 – Tries: Jason Jenkins, Duncan Matthews, Jaco Visagie. Conversions: Tian Schoeman (3). Penalties: Schoeman (3).
Kings 31 – Tries: Makazole Mapimpi, Lionel Cronjé, Malcolm Jaer. Conversions: Cronjé (2). Penalties: Cronjé (3). Drop goal: Cronjé (1).