Careers end. Records are broken. Trophies gather dust. Teammates go their own way. And then all you are left with is the memories. Great memories of a full career. But if you grew up in the Western Cape, there is one memory you carry with you beyond just your career, and when it started and ended. You’ve had it with you since you were a boy running around barefoot with a rugby ball and dreaming the biggest dreams. North versus South.
Like anything great in sport, this match between Western Province and Northern Transvaal or now the DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls is something that has built over time to become the rivalry that it is. For me there is something special and pure about the fact that this was not a rivalry that was created. It simply evolved naturally as the game in South Africa evolved. It’s almost as if there was this great halfway line drawn right through the middle of South Africa and it was decided that this country that loves this game so much and which has given so much to world rugby will not have just one dominant team. It just wouldn’t feel right. There will be two, one at each end of this country, and they will battle each other fiercely for that dominance. Double the passion and double the magic for the fans.
If you go back over the past few decades, you’ll find that the strength in South African rugby always lay in the Western Cape and the north. Northern Transvaal versus Western Province always contained the bulk of the Springbok team. That’s where the traditional power base of South African rugby could always be found.
More recently this power base has been spread a bit wider to include the Sharks as they enjoyed periods of dominance in the late 80s and early 90s.
But for me as a kid growing up, and with my dad André also playing for Western Province, this was the big game. It was always all about north versus south, Western Province versus Northern Transvaal, the DHL Stormers versus the Vodacom Bulls.
Growing up I have so many great memories of this match. The 80s was a special era for Western Province with Carel du Plessis and that whole squad. If I think back to that era I think of Carel du Plessis and how he was able to swerve and beat defenders. I was in awe of that.
Then I remember my heart being broken in the 1998 Currie Cup final at Loftus Versfeld, when Conrad Breytenbach scored the try that helped to beat Western Province that year. That one really hurt.
After that I was privileged to be a part of this great rivalry and play against the Vodacom Bulls.
I remember the first time I played against the Vodacom Bulls in the 2003 Currie Cup. We played at Newlands. In the first round match the Vodacom Bulls had smashed Western Province. I didn’t play in that game as I was still injured. But in the return game at Newlands we swept over them in one of the finest matches I’ve had the pleasure of being involved in. I scored two tries in that game and it stands out for me to this day as one of the great matches between these two teams.
Another classic north versus south match I remember well was in 2012. Compared to the Vodacom Bulls team that year we had a pretty under-strength DHL Stormers team. We hadn’t had great success going up to Loftus, and we were headed there again with a team where we had one or two club players that had just come in. We were definitely up against it. I think it was Siya Kolisi’s first season with the DHL Stormers. I remember he made this fantastic break and passed to Bryan Habana who scored a spectacular try, and we went on to win that game.
That game really summed up what I believe this north versus south battle is all about. We should’ve stood no real chance against a very strong Vodacom Bulls team that year, but this was a classic case of this match bringing out something bigger in a team. It was one of those games where a bunch of players came together and just really understood what we were playing for, and we all played out of our skins that day.
That was a very special match for me, especially being at Loftus. Let’s be honest, Loftus is a fortress, full stop.
It’s such a big motivator and differentiator for the Vodacom Bulls. It’s a difficult place to go and play never mind to go and win. I loved playing at Loftus when I had the green Springbok jersey on and everybody was supporting me. But going there and you’re not wearing the Vodacom Bulls jersey – it’s a tough task. You play at altitude and against an intimidating crowd, and you need to put that aside and play good rugby. It’s a fantastic place and even as a player, understanding how big the challenge was, I loved going there to play.
This weekend, Loftus will again be a fantastic stage for the biggest rivalry in South African rugby.
I’ll be there, watching from the stands and cheering on my DHL Stormers.
And I won’t be alone either. That little barefoot boy inside of me is still there, and still just as excited for this one big match. Before he even started his journey to the Springboks, this match spoke deep into his soul in ways he couldn’t ever understand, but could just feel.
And it’s a match that still speaks to the soul of South African rugby in the most beautiful way.