Cape Town — Normally around the Day of Reconciliation public holiday on December 16, South African rugby players have completed their pre-season training for the following year and begin their summer holidays.
For the Stormers in Cape Town, that often means working on their tan on Clifton Fourth Beach in Camps Bay, and showing off their ripped muscles.
But on Saturday night at Cape Town Stadium, they will be playing in a very serious match — a Champions Cup encounter against London Irish (7.30pm) that has become a must-win game if they hope to reach the playoffs.
South African rugby’s move into Europe following the collapse of the Super Rugby agreement during Covid-19 has resulted in local players having to fall in line with the northern-hemisphere rugby season, which is from August to June.
And that is why the Stormers are facing London Irish this weekend, the Bulls in the United Rugby Championship next Friday, December 23 and the Lions on New Year’s Eve.
At least all three matches are in Cape Town, but it is something that the players need to adapt to. For a top Springbok such as Steven Kitshoff, it becomes even trickier, as he has played virtually non-stop since the start of the 2021 international season.
When asked if he would have normally been on a beach this weekend instead of playing rugby, the Stormers captain said: “Ja, (and) sipping cocktails at Caprice!
“The whole rugby world has changed, and the sooner we get used to it, the better. We’ve been able to adapt quickly and train right through December. In one of this week’s training sessions, we trained at midday in Stellenbosch, in the heat, and the guys were pumping good numbers.
“The guys have made a massive mental shift in that approach, and as the years go by, the guys will get more and more used to it — training in the heat and right through December and January.”
As if playing rugby in the heart of summer wasn’t bad enough, Kitshoff and the rest of the Stormers front row have to contend with a Cape Town Stadium pitch that often crumbles up under the force of a scrum.
The Capetonians pride themselves on their physicality, and use the set-piece as an ideal launch-pad for their free-running backline to attack the opposition’s defence.
But having missed out on their home ground recently, Kitshoff is positive that the surface will suffice.
“I was there for one day before we left on tour, and didn’t really have a chance to scrum on it. But speaking to the groundsman, he is very confident in the way he talks about the surface — especially after the long break post the URC final, the pitch had a chance to recover and become much firmer under foot, especially in the summer,” the loosehead prop said.
“I am expecting it to hold up very nicely, and even though it might get a bit slippery because of the late kickoff, due to the dew on the grass, the pitch itself will hold up better.
“Scrummaging and the mauls are big weapons of ours, and are definitely opportunities for us to get stuck in as a pack of forwards. When the opportunity does arise — and there will be errors in the game — we have to take those with both hands and put the pressure on.
“It’s just a four-game turnaround before the playoffs, so the home games are key. If you lose your first away game, then you have to win your two home ones before the last away match. That’s why the Champions Cup is so tough: it’s the best against the best.
“Playing all the away games is quite difficult, and with the short preparation time, it’s difficult to get into the swing of things. So, it’s great to be home, and hopefully it will be packed in Green Point.”