It really does feel strange to be preparing for our greatest North-South derby match with Christmas a few days away. This is foreign territory to us, and I am sure it is the same for Jake White and his group of players.
Last week my message included an acceptance that this is our new reality when it comes to playing in the northern hemisphere and in European competitions, but an acceptance also must come with an appreciation of just how new this is to us as coaches, management, players and all of you as South African rugby supporters.
In a few years, it will be the norm and December will be a month of summer rugby.
For now, it is mentally getting the minds of the players as strong as possible and to be adaptable to playing in temperatures of two degrees in France a fortnight ago in the Heineken Champions Cup, and then a fortnight later to be taking on our foes from up north in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship at home on a Cape Town summer’s night.
This was always going to be our biggest challenge in the 2022/23 season, in how we managed players and schedules as the Champions Cup runs concurrently with the Vodacom United Rugby Championship. In simple terms, you don’t prepare for and complete a campaign in the one league, and then prepare for and complete a campaign in the other – the campaigns run together.
It is as mad as it is magical.
I am loving it because I can already feel how much I have learned as a coach, in squad selections, in substitutions, in sending the right message to the players and supporters that we want to do well in both competitions and in marrying romance with reality.
The players are learning much about game-time management and their own development.
We always play to win, and we always play to entertain. I know it makes for some heart-stopping moments and last season was particularly crazy in how many matches we got the vital bonus point in the final play of the game.
This season we have started so many matches well and haven’t always been able to maintain this intensity for 80 minutes. It has nothing to do with conditioning and everything to do with the mix and matching of a match 23, with the starters and finishers so often playing both roles, depending on individual playing minutes, the opposition and factoring in how we must manage the current Springboks as part of their national preparation to defend the World Cup in 2023.
I am loving the challenge but loving something doesn’t mean it is simply a stroll. Hell, it’s tough, but it is rewarding to see how competitive we have been in both leagues so far. I know we felt we let ourselves down in the second half against Clermont but we knew how to fix the mistakes that proved costly in the second half of that 24-14 defeat. I was delighted with the response against London Irish on our return to the DHL Stadium a week later.
We won 34-14, by 20 points, but for small margins it could have been a lot closer. We had an early score cancelled by the TMO that may have opened the game for us and they had one try overturned in the final 10 minutes that would have had us scrambling to win the game.
It certainly didn’t feel like a 20-point differential match, but wow we showed character in so many ways, as a squad and individually. It was a proud moment to win our first ever home Heineken Champions Cup home match.
This Friday night it is an entirely different contest, in a different league and with so much difference in context. It is the DHL Stormers versus the Vodacom Bulls and historically it is the biggest domestic derby game in South African rugby.
It is going to be huge, many billing it as a repeat of last season’s Vodacom URC final, but the reality is it is a league match and both sides get to have another go at each other later in the season. Both also have another derby, us against the Emirates Lions and the Vodacom Bulls against the Cell C Sharks, a week later on the 31 December. Just writing that date seems so foreign because we are talking rugby derbies and not cricket derbies.
But it is exciting, and in terms of Friday night it should be a match worthy of any final because when it comes to local derbies, mentally and physically, the South African boys find another gear.
We were victorious three times against the Vodacom Bulls in last season’s league, including the final, but in all three games the biggest winning margin was an unconverted try. That is how close it was and how tight it is in these derby matches.
The Australians, in marketing their rugby league State of Origin three-match series between Queensland and New South Wales, always label it ‘State versus State and Mate versus Mate’.
When you talk DHL Stormers versus Vodacom Bulls, it is the same thing, and whatever the result the boys will share a few drinks afterwards.
A lot was made of last season’s final being about me getting another one over Jake but that was more media talk than anything that has ever motivated me as a coach.
Jake has won a World Cup, a Tri-Nations, titles in Europe, Japan and South Africa and is among the best in the business. Hell, to get a win against a team he coaches would make any coach feel good.
Would I want to be in the winning change room on Friday night as a coach? For sure!
But win, lose or draw, I’d also want to be sharing a drink afterwards with Jake, as would our players with the Bulls. And by drink I don’t necessarily mean alcohol as so many in both squads don’t drink alcohol.
It is about the camaraderie, the bonding that comes with the game and the privilege of being involved in a game as big as Friday’s.
It is about not giving an inch in battle, but also understanding that when the final whistle goes, we are all united and delighted by what the occasion delivered in showcasing the qualities of South African rugby, and that the embrace is one of mate on mate.