A final goodbye as Cronje’s Kings abdicate Super Rugby
“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.