Preview: EP Kings v Pumas
The EP Kings will face the Pumas in the Currie Cup First Division final on Saturday knowing that, come what may, a third consecutive stalemate this season is not an option for undoubtedly the two best sides in the competition.
Two hard-fought draws in their round-robin encounters (30-all in Nelspruit and 26-all in Port Elizabeth) has set up an enticing clash between the unbeaten Kings, who are guaranteed to play promotion-relegation match against the bottom-placed Premier Division team irrespective of the outcome of the final, and a Pumas team who, after a slow start, have steadily improved with each passing week.
Indeed, the men from Nelspruit lost two of their opening three matches in this year's competition – starting with a 32-23 loss to the Leopards in Round 1 and following that up with a 22-16 defeat to the SWD Eagles in Round 3.
The Pumas got their season back on track when they managed a nailbiting 36-35 win over the Valke in Round 4 and thereafter remained undefeated until losing 39-29 to the Griffons in Round 14, with coach Jimmy Stonehouse fielding a largely second-string team with a home semi-final already secured.
Ahead of the final, Stonehouse has announced an unchanged side to that which beat the self-same Griffons 37-30 in last week's semi-final at Mbombela Stadium.
The Kings, meanwhile, must be considered slight favourites for the title, having gone through the season unbeaten, with 12 wins and two draws from their 14 league matches.
Alan Solomons' men were convincing 50-27 winners over the Leopards in last week's semi-final in Port Elizabeth, and he will be hoping that fans flock to Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in their droves on Saturday to give his team all the benefits of home-ground advantage.
Interestingly, Kings hooker Hannes Franklin boasts a remarkable record in First Division finals, having won all three he has played in. Franklin played for the Pumas when they won the 2005 title with a 25-16 win over the Valke. In 2007, he played for the SWD Eagles whey they beat Eastern Province 38-3, and in 2009 for the Pumas once again when they beat the Eagles 47-19.
Solomons has been forced to make a few changes to EP's forwards, with Cornell du Preez moving to No 8 in the absence of inspirational skipper Luke Watson – who was injured last week – and Devin Oosthuizen promoted to the starting team in the No 7 jersey.
“It's a huge loss to have a player like Luke at this stage of the season, but we've said that we will rely on our squad to carry us through and we're fortunate to have quality loosies to carry the team forward,” said Solomons. “We're also very lucky to have quality leaders such as Tiger Mangweni and Darron Nell to carry on with the leadership role".