Cape Town – Question: does the present Kings team in Super Rugby have a stronger collective heartbeat than the Bulls?
Answer: quite possibly known by around 21:00 on Saturday.
Fuelled by a first victory of the season against the Sunwolves in Port Elizabeth last weekend, Steven Sykes and his suddenly fairly merry men are entitled to feel that they have just a sniff at going two from two at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium when the hard-to-fathom Bulls (19:15 kick-off) are next potential prey.
Let’s be clear: the Kings won’t be labelled by too many astute observers as favourites, despite their courageous, near-desperate performance against the Japanese rookies … and that’s exactly how they will wish it to be on Saturday anyway.
But for a hotchpotch, upheaval-plagued side mocked several weeks ago as having a realistic chance of victory just once in the entire campaign (yes, you guessed it: that now safely-negotiated home Sunwolves fixture), the Eastern Cape crew increasingly seem to have a better prospect of adding a further scalp or two before they inevitably fail to make the knockout cut.
The Bulls aren’t exactly in crisis themselves, given that they’ve not lost in four outings -- including a 16-16 Loftus draw with the Sharks -- since being dumped 33-9 by the Stormers in round one at Newlands.
But the toughest part of their itinerary still lies a few weeks up the line, and even the most ardent of supporters in Pretoria are likely to admit that the former champions’ efforts have been frustratingly fitful and imprecise for the most part so far.
That is what will give the Kings a mischievous – or more earnest than that? – thought that their next foes may be ripe for a surprise toppling at this particular bend in the road.
Once again last Saturday, as has been a hallmark for several weeks, the Bulls did some praiseworthy, hard initial yards against the Cheetahs at Loftus, before receding quite alarmingly to end the game rather clinging to a 23-18 score-line in their favour.
Three tries to boast in their column after only 34 minutes, Adriaan Strauss and company seemed odds-on for a comfortable, probably bonus point-inclusive triumph, but as happened against both the Sunwolves (Singapore) and Rebels (Pretoria) previously, a killer touch was notably absent.
Perhaps that’s what you ought to expect from a team clearly in the throes of reinvention and the bedding-down of new, rookie faces in 2016 after another wave of departures of old favourites last year.
But the way in which they “switch off” all too regularly just raises the possibility either that steely resolve and genuine ambition are somehow lacking as a group, or even that conditioning isn’t quite what it could be in certain cases in the ranks.
These are areas where the Kings -- by contrast and for all their faults -- appear to be getting things more right than wrong of late, even as they predictably labour in the nether regions of both their conference and the overall log.
First came that stirring resistance in their closing New Zealand tour game against the Hurricanes in Wellington, where they were right in it – totally against expectation -- up to the hour mark or thereabouts, and then the remarkable defensive stoicism that saw them eke out the win over the Sunwolves.
The significant territorial mastery commanded by the Japanese side, who foolishly also spurned a few penalty opportunities at the posts even with generous time left on the clock, served as an ongoing reminder of the Kings’ weaknesses.
But the home side also scrummed and tackled with a relish that proved infectious through the ranks – openside flank revelation CJ Velleman has been credited with 20 tackles alone last Saturday – and these, again, are areas where the Bulls presently cause certain brows to furrow in the vicinity of Loftus.
Perhaps the adversity (some of it so deep as to seem almost comical) which surrounds professional rugby in Port Elizabeth has actually acted as an inadvertent unifier in the Kings dressing room.
The team appears to be responding pretty well to the wishes of coach Deon Davids and his confidantes, whilst former Springbok captain Bob Skinstad timeously praised veteran skipper and yeoman second-rower Sykes on SuperSport’s “TMO” chat show late last week.
“Stevie’s a great guy, an Eastern Cape boy who’s gone back there and really shown the pride that he’s got for the area and the people,” the now commentator said.
“He’s said to himself: ‘We’re in a difficult situation here; I’m gonna just suck it up and play’. And you know what? He has. He’s led from the front – he epitomises the battling spirit in that part of the world.”
The Kings almost indisputably aren’t better, player for the player, than the bigger-union Bulls.
But it’s not out of the question they’ll look as though they want it more on Saturday, and that’s enough to give them a 35-40 percent, puncher’s chance, by my book …
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing