A fi­nal good­bye as Cronje’s Kings ab­di­cate Su­per Rugby

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - VATA NGOBENI JAC­QUES VAN DER WESTHUYZEN

“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 be­fore their last Su­per Rugby match against the Chee­tahs at the Nel­son Man­dela Bay Sta­dium in Port El­iz­a­beth to­mor­row (kick off is at 7pm).

In what can only be de­scribed as the “Bat­tle of the Damned”, the Kings and Chee­tahs will per­form their fi­nal act in the tour­na­ment as they bow out of the com­pe­ti­tion as the two SA teams who have been axed.

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.

Just like his team, Cronje has en­joyed a stand­out sea­son in the No 10 jer­sey, much to the sur­prise of many rugby pun­dits.

Cronje’s ex­ploits earned him a call up to the SA ‘A’ side last month in their se­ries win over the French Bar­bar­ians.

“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, the 28-year-old Cronje at­tributes his rich vein of form to his team­mates. 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. “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, play­ing at a high level and en­joy­ing it

“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,” said Cronje.

And the Kings will be for­tu­nate in be­ing able to call on the same group of men who stunned the Bulls last week­end with only one change to the start­ing line-up.

Lock Wil­helm van der Sluys is 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 Smal­lSmith will start in the un­fa­mil­iar po­si­tion of wing af­ter Sergeal Petersen failed to re­cover from a ham­string in­jury.

Said Chee­tahs coach Franco Smith: “They get more space to play in and the free­dom they get from their coach­ing staff has played a part in it.

“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.”

TALK about mak­ing up for lost time! That’s the story of Harold Vorster. The Li­ons cen­tre has been one of his team’s star per­form­ers in the 2017 Su­per Rugby com­pe­ti­tion, mak­ing the most of the op­por­tu­nity that has come his way, go­ing so far as to also run out for the SA “A” team last month.

Head coach Jo­han Ack­er­mann would have been won­der­ing at the start of the year who among Vorster, Howard Mnisi and Ro­han Janse van Rens­burg would don the No 12 jer­sey this sea­son as all are spe­cial­ist in­side cen­tres, with Lionel Mapoe the spe­cial­ist 13. Then there is also Jac­ques Nel, a player with im­mense tal­ent, but who has not been able to get into the Li­ons’ match­day squad on a reg­u­lar ba­sis.

Ini­tially Ack­er­mann picked Vorster at 13, with Janse van Rens­burg at 12 – mainly be­cause Mapoe was in­jured and Mnisi had been ruled out for the en­tire com­pe­ti­tion – but as fate would have it, an in­jury to Janse van Rens­burg opened the door for Vorster to get a crack in his favourite po­si­tion, in­side cen­tre. And how he’s taken the chance.

The 23-year-old has vir­tu­ally made the No 12 jer­sey his own, scor­ing some won­der­ful tries along the way, and he now seems cer­tain to stay in the role of mid­field cre­ator even though Janse van Rens­burg has re­turned from in­jury.

“Things have gone well so far for me this year. I’m very blessed I’ve had a chance to play reg­u­larly,” he said this week. Play­ing in be­tween the cre­ative and in form El­ton Jan­tjies at 10 and Mapoe at 13 has no doubt played a key part in his pro­gres­sion this year.

“It’s been re­ally nice hav­ing those guys next to me ... they’re pretty ex­pe­ri­enced and we’ve played well off each other, we’ve got a good un­der­stand­ing hav­ing played next to each other for some time now, but the key thing is that ev­ery­one in this Li­ons team brings some­thing spe­cial and unique to the whole makeup of the side. At the end of the day it’s a team ef­fort that’s got us to where we are.”

And that is a place in the quar­ter-fi­nals for the sec­ond year run­ning. The Li­ons face the Sharks in Dur­ban in their last round robin game on Satur­day, but they are al­ready se­cured of their spot in the knock­out rounds from next week, hav­ing topped their con­fer­ence ta­ble with 13 wins from 14 out­ings so far. Vorster will be ea­ger to be a part of those play­offs, hav­ing missed out last sea­son.

It’s been an in­jury-hit road to here for the big cen­tre. Af­ter mak­ing his Su­per Rugby de­but in 2015 and show­ing plenty to be ex­cited about, he tore his an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ments in his left knee in the early stages of the Cur­rie Cup com­pe­ti­tion. He re­turned to ac­tion in Su­per Rugby last year as the first choice No 12, but in that fa­mous win in Hamil­ton against the Chiefs – which set the Li­ons up for their amaz­ing run to the fi­nal – Vorster again tore the same knee lig­a­ments. He would miss out on all the highs (and a few lows) the Li­ons would ex­pe­ri­ence in a won­der­ful 2016 cam­paign.

“It wasn’t nice sit­ting out last year and see­ing the guys do so well,” he said. “But you also learn a lot about your­self in ad­ver­sity, not only as a rugby player, but as a per­son as well ... and I learned a lot. I sup­pose ev­ery­thing’s worked out well.

“I sim­ply had to stay pos­i­tive through all the set­backs ... no­body else was go­ing to do it for me. All I’ve done this year is give it my best on the field, play the best rugby I can play, and left things in the coaches’ hands ... they’re the only ones who can de­cide who to pick. For­tu­nately I’ve been in­jury-free this time ... but even so, it’s a long sea­son and we need cover in each po­si­tion, and we all sup­port and back each other, no mat­ter who gets se­lected.”

Vorster was at 13 when the Li­ons hosted the Sharks on April 1 at El­lis Park, a game that went down to the wire but in which the hosts got up to win 34-29. The cen­tre is ex­pect­ing a sim­i­larly tight con­test in Dur­ban on Satur­day. “They might have been a bit in­con­sis­tent this year, but there is no weak team in Su­per Rugby and the Sharks are al­ways a hard, tough side to play against. They’re go­ing to want to make up for that loss ... so we’re go­ing to have to be at our very best if we’re to get the win.”

Ack­er­mann will name his lineup for that match later to­day.

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