Those who are involved in the business of recruiting rugby players, be it as a talent scout, coach or player agent, are usually unanimous about one thing: the rarest type of player, and thus most valuable commodity on the market, is a tighthead prop.
Even rarer is the tighthead prop who can play both sides of the scrum, so the DHL Stormers can feel well pleased with themselves for securing the signature of powerful former Cheetahs stalwart CJ van der Linde. Not only has Van der Linde excelled at tighthead for the Springboks, and played there in a World Cup final, he has also been comfortable playing international rugby on the opposite side of the scrum.
It has been at loosehead, the left-hand side of the scrum, that Van der Linde played most of his rugby in the warm-up phase to the new Vodacom Super Rugby season which starts for the DHL Stormers with tonight’s clash against the Lions here at DHL Newlands. And that looks like where ?he will be used for the foreseeable future.
Van der Linde admits that tighthead is his preferred position, but says he’s happy to play either side if the team cause demands it, as indeed was often the case at his former union as well as the Springboks.
‘Rugby is a team game and you play where you best serve the team, so while I’m in no doubt that tighthead is my preferred position, I’m happy to play loosehead if that is what the Stormers require,’ he says.
‘I am of the understanding that I will play both sides during Super Rugby, which suits me. It’s my ambition to play in another World Cup and to win another World Cup, and while No 3 is the jersey I’m aiming for, being able to play on both sides and be a versatile player doesn’t harm my cause at all.’
It’s not as if Van der Linde isn’t used to playing both front-row positions. Although he played most of his school rugby at tighthead, he played for the 1998 Free State Schools team at loosehead and was selected in that position for SA Schools.
‘I was injured so didn’t actually get to play for SA Schools but I was selected to play for them as a loosehead as that was where I was in Craven Week. It’s a lot easier to make the switch to loosehead from tighthead than the other way around, so that helped me.’
There must be something weird going on in the Eastern Free State when it comes to spawning big men capable of fronting international scrumming units, for although he matriculated from the Springbok rugby factory of Grey College in Bloemfontein, he spent his early years in Bethlehem, the home town of Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis.
‘I was at school in Bethlehem until Grade 6 and then moved to Bloemfontein. I knew of the Du Plessis brothers – everyone did – and I knew Jannie, who was two years older than me. I never really got to know Bismarck until later, after I had finished school.’
Van der Linde made his senior provincial debut for the Cheetahs in 2001, just three seasons after he finished school, and he spent some years playing alongside current WP senior professional coach Rassie Erasmus before the former Springbok flank took over the Free State coaching reins.
‘Rassie did have a big role to play in my earlier development and I played with him and was coached by him so it did help me decide to come to the Stormers. But the main reason I came here was because when I announced that I wanted to leave Ireland and return to South Africa, it was WP, through Rassie, who first showed an interest.’
Like all newcomers to the Cape, Van der Linde is relishing his first tastes of the DHL Stormers culture and has been impressed with the work ethic and team spirit.
‘All teams are professional these days, and I have been part of some very professional set-ups in the past, but it does seem that at the Stormers it is a level above elsewhere. There seems to be more attention to detail here, the management is very focused and committed to each facet that makes up the team, and they put a lot of attention and effort into making sure everything is running smoothly.
‘When it comes to the other players, I know a lot of the guys from the Springboks, so it hasn’t been difficult to settle in and to be accepted as part of the Stormers squad. The conditioning here is also quite exceptional; I have been impressed with the stress that is put on the team being in top shape and the conditioning staff here clearly know what they are doing.’
Van der Linde has also been taken with the determination that his new team-mates have to end the long trophy drought at Newlands.
‘The Stormers fell just short last year by making the final and you get a strong sense that everyone is extremely determined to go one better this year,’ he says.
Van der Linde has won more trophies with the teams he has been involved in than all the other DHL Stormers with the possible exception of Bryan Habana, but that has not quelled his hunger to taste Vodacom Super Rugby success. Indeed, the one little open space left in the trophy column on his CV might be all the more reason for him to put in an extra effort over the coming months.
‘The Cheetahs won the Currie Cup when I was playing for them, Leinster won the Heineken Cup when I was involved with them, and of course I’ve been part of teams that won the Tri-Nations and the World Cup. The World Cup is obviously the cherry on the top, and I am eager to relive the experience of 2007 later this year. ‘But the Super Rugby trophy is the one cup I have not won yet, so it would be a special experience to get to taste that here as part ?of the Stormers.’
Van der Linde lists the big influences in his career as his father in the earlier years and then fellow Cheetahs Springbok Os du Randt and former Cheetahs front-ranker and scrum guru Dougie Heymans.
‘Those two guys really helped me through and showed me the ropes once I started playing senior rugby,’ he recalls. ‘But it wasn’t just them, and perhaps the secret to the number of Springbok front-rankers that are produced by the Cheetahs lies in the way the older guys help the youngsters. For instance, I also learnt a heck of a lot from Ollie le Roux once he moved back to the Cheetahs from the Sharks. He really took time out to help me.’
Van der Linde appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the game and experience a different style of rugby during his two seasons with Leinster, but doesn’t attempt to pretend he had an easy time there.
‘Playing in the northern hemisphere is tough. It’s tough on you as a player, particularly as a forward, as there is such an emphasis on forward-based rugby there because of the conditions, but also on your family. It’s good to be back in South Africa and living in the Cape. Playing for the Stormers has been an awesome experience so far.’
Article by: Gavin Rich/Stormers matchday magazine