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Super Rugby enters relegation playoff territory

July 25, 2013

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African teams the Southern Kings and Lions begin Super Rugby’s first relegation playoff on Friday, a two-leg contest with more financial importance than this weekend’s competition semifinals or even the final.

The aggregate loser over the home and away matches will slip back into domestic structures for a year and take a significant hit in income to go with its dented pride.

“This match is critical to both franchises. The consequences of these matches are extremely serious,” Kings director of rugby Alan Solomons said.

For the Port Elizabeth-based Kings, defeat will render a fairly promising debut season in Super Rugby meaningless. Failure for the Johannesburg-based Lions will mean another year in the wilderness having been dropped from the southern hemisphere’s top league in 2012 for the Kings without the chance to play for their place. That led to a 30-40 percent drop in earnings, Lions President Kevin de Klerk has said.

Although the promotion-relegation playoff only currently applies to South Africa because the country has six Super Rugby-ready teams and just five places, it provides a possible blueprint for the future of the competition. A relegation playoff also will be mandatory for the bottom-place South African team for at least the next two seasons before tournament organizer SANZAR can consider another expansion.

The Lions’ eventual relegation last year and the Kings’ promotion — only confirmed well after the season and after plenty of uncertainty — is still a bone of contention in South Africa. But it means little now. Both teams will play for the place a year later.

“They (the Kings) want to keep playing in the competition and they’ve had a taste for it,” Lions coach Johan Ackermann said. “We want to get back in it. We know how good it is. Both camps have tremendous pressure on them.”

In rugby terms, it also raises the intriguing question of whether a season testing themselves against the best can carry the Kings past a Lions team which is probably more talented on the team sheets.

The Lions have pulled back three of their top players, Springboks flyhalf Elton Jantjies, lock Franco van der Merwe and hooker Martin Bezuidenhout, from loan spells at other teams for the games at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth on Friday and Ellis Park in Johannesburg next weekend.

But the Kings are battle-hardened while the Lions’ season has been made up of meaningless friendly matches.

“Time will tell, but they definitely have the edge with the intensity that they’re now used to playing,” Ackermann said. “I believe our players are good enough to lift themselves up to that intensity. It could be two games too far for them or they can be quite used to the intensity.”

While Jantjies, Van der Merwe and Bezuidenhout return to boost the Lions, the Kings will be without captain Andries Strauss, who broke his hand at training last week. However, New Zealander Hadleigh Parkes returns to the backline after a long injury break and can show his value to the Kings at the very end of the season.

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Follow Gerald Imray at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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