Kings skipper Steven Sykes is optimistic ahead of their three-match Super Rugby fixtures against strong New Zealand sides despite a struggling start.
The Kings will face the Chiefs on Saturday in Port Elizabeth, followed by the seven-time champions the Crusaders in Christchurch and the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Sykes, who represented the Sharks over several seasons and had clocked up 69 appearances for the Durban-based side by 2012, joined the Eastern Province franchise in 2013 and said the competition was much tougher then than it is now due to the formatting used in the old tournament and the travel burden that was placed on South African players.
“I was looking at the schedule and telling the guys, it’s actually quite amazing really,” Sykes told Supersport. “I remember back when it was the Super 12, we’d sometimes go on tour for five weeks. That was really difficult. “By the time you get to the fourth or fifth weeks the guys start to get irritated with one another after living together for so long, and if you are not doing well on the field, that makes it even worse. “The new format is in South Africa’s favour. We play only two matches on this tour, the tour only last two weeks. And then we come back and host the Sunwolves.
“It’s not really so tough in comparison to what we went through in the past and I am trying to tell the players that. It’s a short tour and we can go out and make the most of it.”
Sykes also said they have put their opening round thumping by the Sharks behind them and that they are prioritising their meeting with the Chiefs now.
“I don’t think there are any mental scars from the Sharks game, and we feel we played well in the first 40 minutes of that game and then just let ourselves down after halftime with some silly mistakes that cost us and gave the Sharks momentum,” he added. “It was a lesson for us and we have trained really well since then. There has been a lot of hard work, we’ve spent some time in the sand dunes. We face a tough tour but first we are focussing on this weekend’s task against the Chiefs.”
The Kings started their campaign with a squad of 27 players, 15 of whom made their Super Rugby debut in the opening match against the Sharks, but things have improved since then, as head coach Deon Davids has a number of more experienced players returning for the Chiefs clash.
The Kings still have a depth issue though, as the difference in quality between their first and second string players is much greater than in other teams, meaning that any injuries to their starting 15 would force Davids to resort to his inexperienced bench. “We know the situation we face. If you look at the team that we selected for the Sharks game, there were 15 guys making their Super Rugby debut. Compare that to the experience boasted by the Sharks,” explained Davids.
“But this is the situation we are in and we have to deal with it. We learned a lot from that game and we are in a position after one game where the guys feel they know a bit more what Super Rugby is about. “It will be a different experience each week, and a massive learning curve for them. We play the Chiefs (in Port Elizabeth) on Saturday and then on Sunday we leave for New Zealand.
“The rotation debate depends on how you look at it. It may be better to have continuity to keep the guys going, and to see more and more how the team grows.”
A largely new look pack will start for the Chiefs when they take on the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth on Saturday.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie has made numerous changes to the team that narrowly lost 36-32 to the Lions last Saturday in Hamilton.
The revamped front row sees Mitchell Graham, Nathan Harris and Siate Tokolahi pack down for their first starts of the season. In the second row, Johan Bardoul partners with Michael Allardice. Bardoul replaces the injured Brodie Retallick who is sidelined for 4-6 weeks after sustaining broken ribs against the Lions last week.
Taleni Seu, Sam Cane and Michael Leitch form the loose forward trio adding plenty of power and agility to the back of the scrum.
In the backs, Brad Weber gets his first start of the 2016 Super Rugby season at scrum-half. Co-captain Aaron Cruden retains the number 10 jersey, with Charlie Ngatai and Seta Tamanivalu continuing their dominant partnership in the midfield for the third successive week.
Glen Fisiiahi impressed in his debut to earn his first start on the right wing, with James Lowe and Damian McKenzie rounding out the backline in jerseys 11 and 15 respectively.
The strong reserve bench packs a punch with Rhys Marshall, Pauliasi Manu and 2015 gold medal winning New Zealand U20 captain Atu Moli on hand as front row replacements. They are joined on the bench by fellow forwards James Tucker and Maama Vaipulu.
Replacement scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow offers plenty of experience, with Anton Lienert-Brown and Sam McNicol ready to add impact to the backline off the bench.
Should Atu Moli and James Tucker take the field, they will be making their Super Rugby debuts while Sam McNicol is in line to earn his first cap for the Chiefs.
HEAD TO HEAD
Overall: Chiefs 1, Kings 0
In Port Elizabeth: Chiefs 1, Kings 0
STATS AND FACTS
– This will be just the second meeting between these teams after the Chiefs defeated the Kings 35-24 in 2013.
– The Kings are hunting for their first win since round 13 of their debut season, although two of their three wins have come when playing at home.
– The Chiefs have won seven and drawn two of their last 12 matches in South Africa. They’ll be aiming to avoid consecutive defeats in South Africa for the first time since 2008.
– The Chiefs have averaged 15 offloads per game so far this season, the most of any team and triple the Kings’ average (five).
– Kings flanker CJ Velleman has won four turnovers this season, the equal fifth most in the competition despite his side only having played one fixture. No player has won more than four in a single game this year.
Kings – 15 Jurgen Visser, 14 Luzuko Vulindlu, 13 Stefan Watermeyer, 12 Shane Gates, 11 Malcolm Jaer, 10 Louis Fouché, 9 Ntando Kebe, 8 Jacques Engelbrecht, 7 Thembelani Bholi, 6 Chris Cloete, 5 JC Astle, 4 Steven Sykes (c), 3 Jacobie Adriaanse, 2 Edgar Matutlule, 1 Schalk Ferreira.
Subs: 16 Sithembiso Sithole, 17 Martin Bezuidenhout, 18 Tom Botha, 19 Schalk Oelofse, 20 Cyril-John Velleman, 21 Kevin Luiters, 22 Elgar Watts, 23 Jaco van Tonder.
Chiefs – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Glen Fisiiahi, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Charlie Ngatai, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (c), 9 Brad Weber, 8 Michael Leitch, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Taleni Seu, 5 Johan Bardoul, 4 Michael Allardice, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Mitchell Graham.
Subs: 16 Rhys Marshall, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Atu Moli, 19 James Tucker, 20 Maama Vaipulu, 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Anton Lienert-Brown, 23 Sam McNicol..
Referee: Jaco van Heerden (South Africa)
Assistant referee: Jaco Peyper (South Africa), Rodney Bonaparte (South Africa)
TMO: Johan Greeff (South Africa)