I consider myself an eternal optimist and one of the great characteristics of this DHL Stormers squad, be it players, coaches or management, is that we never believe in the impossible.
Anything is possible and in the context of sport and, in our case, rugby, you can either be another statistic in history or you can be a history maker.
This group of players, and I repeatedly rave about their qualities, are history makers. They were the first South African team to win the inaugural Vodacom United Rugby Championship last season. They set the record for the most successive wins in the franchise’s history, they also set the record for the most matches unbeaten and they have won their past 16 matches in South Africa, playing at three different home venues and against the best of South Africa’s franchises.
I always talk of them as a squad or a group because this is not a success story built on the qualities of 15 run-on players and eight super subs. We have used more players this season in the Vodacom URC than any other team because we have had to build depth for the demands of a new annual calendar that involves playing in the Vodacom URC and in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Our visit to Clermont this Saturday is huge. It is a history-making occasion because it will always be remembered as the franchise’s first ever Heineken Champions Cup group match. For those who believe the first in anything is always the best and most memorable, I hope we can be true to this belief.
I have such a high regard for the strength of French domestic rugby and the form of the French national team in the past 18 months is testament to the strength of the French Top 14. The league also includes so many wonderfully talented overseas players who have made France their home or who still play for their respective national teams but have committed their club future to France.
Clermont, established in 1911, are renowned as the epi-centre of French club rugby. They are a team that have consistently proved to be so good in the league and then somehow stumbled in the play-offs of the Top 14 and they in the past have suffered similar disappointment in the Heineken Cup.
But if they have a reputation of being the bridesmaid when it comes to winning the biggest titles, it is the opposite when they play at home at the Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin. The South African players I know who play or who have played in France and those in our current squad with French club rugby experience, like Deon Fourie, Steve Kitshoff and Joe Dweba, talk of the challenge of visiting Clermont as being like few they have ever experienced outside of Test rugby.
The crowd is fanatical, the town lives for rugby and the team, and I recall a media interview with Breyton Paulse many years ago when he said he had never quite experienced the thrill of playing at home for Clermont. He made it very clear he was thankful he was the home winger and not among the opposition, when it came to the support and hostility of the crowd.
Clermont, under the Kiwi coach Vern Cotter, went 77 matches unbeaten at home. Clermont, up until December 2020, had won 31 of their 32 group home matches in European club competitions. Last season they won one from three, losing to Leicester and being edged by Ulster. Historically, they are 32 wins from 35 home starts in the European Club competition group stages.
Don’t be fooled by their current league standing in the Top 14. They have beaten the teams ranked third, fourth and fifth at home and lost by a point to Toulouse away from home.
They are a good side, and we know it will take something special to knock them over.
The challenge is massive, especially because of the change in hemispheres and the temperatures. We would have gone from playing in 30 degrees a week ago in South Africa to a high of two on Saturday.
I started by saying I am an eternal optimist, but I am also a realist when it comes to respecting an occasion, the strength of the opposition and the impact of playing in foreign conditions in front of a hostile home crowd.
We can only control our discipline, our mindset and our approach, and that is where the optimism is so strong in our squad. We believe nothing is impossible and if winning at home in the Heineken Champions Cup is considered gold, then winning away from home in France is closer to platinum.
Savour Saturday’s occasion in Clermont for its history, and hopefully we can give you all performance and result that is history-making.
Chat next week from sunny Cape Town.