They say you haven’t watched rugby at Newlands until you’ve watched it from the standing room area in front of the main grandstand.
This is where you’ll find the most loyal Investec Stormers fans. They were there last Saturday against the Chiefs and they really savoured the two tries their favourite, Bolla Conradie, scored.
While the majority of the crowd sit back in their comfortable plastic seats, the ‘standers’ are happy to stay on their feet for an hour and a half. In fact, most of them arrive two hours before kick-off to get the best possible position – somewhere near the front, close to the halfway line.
They come dressed in black and hold up banners, which either praise the Investec Stormers or rip off the opposition. Fathers perch their two-year-old sons on their shoulders, while UCT students use the rugby to kick off their Saturday jol.
The ‘standers’ will support anyone who wears the black jersey, but they do have their favourites, according to Investec Stormers manager Thelo Wakefield. ‘They get angry with me when I substitute Bolla during a game,’ laughs the big man. ‘I try to tell them it’s the coach who makes the decisions not me. I point to my headset, but they still don’t let up. They just want to see Bolla play the full 80 minutes.’
To most of these die-hard fans, Bolla is the king of the Cape (with Breyton a very close second). Sure, they like Neil de Kock, and rate him highly, but it’s Bolla who holds a special place in their hearts. The scrumhalf represents their community and proves that anyone can play professional rugby no matter where they come from.
Bolla is a product of Kasselsvlei school, where soccer was once the dominant sport. His success with the oval-ball game changed all that. Now rugby rules supreme.
When de Kock was appointed Investec Stormers captain at the beginning of the year, the ‘standers’ felt like sitting in protest, because they knew it meant Bolla would spend nearly all of his time on the subs bench.
De Kock started the Investec Stormers’ first five matches of the Vodacom Super 12, before Bolla was finally given a start against the Crusaders. The ‘standers’ celebrated the return of their favourite son.
‘It’s never nice sitting on the bench,’ says Bolla. ‘I want to start every match for the Stormers, but I realise that’s not always going to be possible. I just have to make sure that when I do get a chance, I make the most of it.’
Bolla and De Kock have been arch-rivals since their school days. Both lived in Bellville and while De Kock went to Settlers, they’d often come up against each other at Western Province schools trials.
‘I always watched Neil at school and monitored his progress,’ says Bolla. ‘He’s been there throughout my rugby career. Sure, it would be nice to have the scrumhalf position to myself, but having Neil in the Stormers squad puts pressure on me to perform and brings out the best in me. The Investec Stormers rotation policy works well for both of us. It’ll help extend our careers because we won’t play as much rugby. It’s a win-win situation.’
De Kock, one of SA rugby’s nice guys, has only nice things to say about Bolla. ‘I admire the way he breaks from a scrum or maul,’ he says. ‘He’s very dangerous around the fringes and always keeps the opposition guessing. I also like his competitiveness. He always strives to be the best.’
While it must have been tempting for Bolla to join another province to ensure a regular starting spot, the scrummie insists he would never leave Newlands.
‘I grew up in the Western Cape,’ he says. ‘I love being part of the Stormers squad and can’t imagine playing for anyone else. I’m here to stay and I know Neil’s not going anywhere either!
‘Besides, I could never leave all those fans who have supported me over the years.’
The ‘standers’ will be pleased.
Bolla’s favourite stadium, apart from Newlands, is Loftus. ‘There’s always a full house when the Investec Stormers play there and the atmosphere is amazing,’ he says.
According to Neil de Kock, Bolla loves listening to Michael Jackson and often takes control of the microphone on the Stormers team bus. What about entering Idols this year, Bolla?