South African teams the Southern Kings and Lions begin Super Rugby’s first relegation play-off today, a two-leg contest with greater financial implications than this weekend’s competition semi-finals, 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 to income.
“This match is critical to both franchises. The consequences of these matches are extremely serious,” said Kings director of rugby, Alan Solomons.
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 – when they were replaced by the Kings – without the chance to play for their place.
Lions president Kevin de Klerk has said relegation led to a drop in earnings of between 30 and 40 per cent.
In rugby terms, the meeting raises the 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 stand-off Elton Jantjies, lock Franco van der Merwe and hooker Martin Bezuidenhout, from loan spells.
The Kings will be without captain Andries Strauss, who broke his hand at training last week, for their visit to the Eastern Cape. However, New Zealander Hadleigh Parkes returns to the backline after injury and can show his value to the Kings at the very end of the season.