We are in Gqeberha this Saturday, playing at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, and playing as the home team.
And we know it will feel like a home game because the DHL Stormers have always had a special place in the hearts of rugby supporters in Gqeberha.
I spoke with a few players who were among the last DHL Stormers team to play at the Nelson Mandela Bay against the Kings, back in Super Rugby in 2017. The DHL Stormers won, but they say their memory was of such wonderful support from the locals, even though they were willing the Kings to win. They also remember a Kings winger who looked particularly impressive. I went back and had a look at the match review and that winger was Makazole Mapimpi and we know how his career has blossomed.
The stadium support the Kings had during their few years in the latter stages of Super Rugby was second only to the DHL Stormers, who historically had averaged 31 000 spectators a match.
I believe the Kings in their first year of Super Rugby, which included the historic win against the Highlanders from New Zealand, averaged close to 30 000 a match at the stadium.
We also saw the popularity of the World Sevens when it was hosted in Gqeberha and whenever the Springboks have played at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium the support has been chocker block, when it comes to the stadium attendance.
My memories of Gqeberha go back to the days of the Boet Erasmus but so much has changed in the rugby landscape and so much of it is for the better. It is a privilege for us, as the DHL Stormers, to take a home match to the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium and what excites me as much as the prospect of the match is the make-up of our squad.
We’ve been blessed to be able to showcase the cultural representation of rugby in the Western Cape through our selections every week and it has never been a case for me as a coach to look at a team sheet and count how many players of colour have been selected.
Since I have been coach of the DHL Stormers and in my days of coaching DHL Western Province it was a simple equation: the best 23 plays in relation to the occasion and there is a selection science, based on game strategy, individual skills and combinations, as to which 15 start from the 23 and which 15 finish.
This season, in our opening seven Vodacom United Rugby Championship matches, we’ve really had to juggle, mix and match and test the depth of our squad because so many frontline players were absent because of international commitments or injury, and we also lost some world-class players to overseas clubs.
For us to have dropped just the one match in seven is among our proudest achievements as a squad because it speaks volumes to the qualities of the players within our system, which brings me to the match-day squad for Saturday. It is another of those old and young, experienced and inexperienced groupings, in which we have shown the Dragons the greatest respect but also been true to our philosophy that if a player is in our extended squad, he is good enough to play in the competition.
Some regulars return and some hugely talented youngsters will get a taste of the league and experience the passion of the Welsh lads. Our two toughest matches were against Welsh teams this season and our first defeat in more than a year came against a Welsh outfit.
We know we are in for a heck of a game, but our optimism is such that we believe in ourselves to play great rugby and get a positive result.
Over the years I’ve been fortunate to get to know many players who either played their rugby in Gqeberha or moved to the Western Cape or other provinces. The consistent talk from these guys was always that the people of the province don’t just love their home team but that they love their rugby and that is why Saturday will be such a fantastic occasion.
It will also be history-making for the DHL Stormers in a way that I was not aware of until told, which is that 11 of the starting XV are players of colour. As I mentioned earlier, the strength of DHL Western Province and the DHL Stormers is our cultural diversity, but when I heard the number, it really made me appreciate how much progress we have made and how we have transformed just by way of understanding how we wanted to play and then identified the players we believe most effectively suit this game plan.
I know that as a squad we speak to the entire Western Cape rugby community and that we have wonderful support within other provinces and abroad, but geez it makes me proud when I see these players stand up every weekend and play for their supporters and for the right to get another crack at wearing the jersey.
We experienced such wonderful support in the pre-season when we played South Western Districts in George and the Cell C Sharks at Grey High.
The Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Gqeberha is our home on Saturday afternoon and for all of you who just love rugby I know you will love having us playing as your home team.
I hope to see all of you in the stands.
Lastly, to our Springboks, what a win against England. THANK YOU, it made for a great Saturday evening.
Be safe and chat next week.