Cape Town — Not only was Ruan Nortje the best South African No 5 lock in last year’s United Rugby Championship (URC), but arguably the finest in the competition overall.
The 24-year-old Bulls stalwart is a line-out master, and won the URC Ironman award for the most minutes played in the league stage of the season — an incredible 1 394 minutes in 18 matches, which meant that he sat out just 46 minutes in total.
Nortje was picked in the team of the tournament as well, and duly earned his Springbok debut against Wales in Bloemfontein in July.
Nortje came off the bench at the Free State Stadium, and has been unlucky not to add to his solitary outing, with Bok coach Jacques Nienaber sticking with Lood de Jager throughout the international season.
But now it’s about getting back into the national set-up, and he wants to continue pushing for higher honours in Saturday’s clash against Edinburgh at Loftus Versfeld (2.30pm kick-off).
“For any South African boy, it’s a dream … Just a massive honour and privilege to have worn that jersey just once. It obviously just motivated me to work as hard as possible to get that feeling again,” the Hoërskool Wonderboom product said this week.
“I am just so humbled and very grateful for the opportunity — and now I just have to work hard to earn the right to be there again.”
Nortje, though, knows he won’t have a free ride against Edinburgh. The Scottish outfit beat the Bulls 17-10 at the DAM Heath Stadium last October, and were rated as the best overall line-out team in the competition by the URC, with the Pretoria side second.
Edinburgh made a great start to their campaign with a 44-6 thrashing of the Dragons at home last weekend, and will be confident of toppling Jake White’s team again.
“Edinburgh have one-up on us from last year. They are a massive, quality side, and a lot of internationals. It’s a massive challenge to test ourselves against international players. They are a well-structured team and had the best line-out percentage last season (92 to the Bulls’ 91), so it is going to be a massive challenge for us,” Nortje said.
“But the guys are so excited just to be back on Loftus, and hopefully we will have a few fans there and make them proud.”
To do that, the Bulls will aim to lift the tempo and make Edinburgh feel the debilitating effects of playing at altitude. Nortje said that his own team suffered a bit as well in their 31-15 win over the Lions at Ellis Park last week, but insists that they want to take the fight to the visitors on Saturday.
“The first one of the season is always tough on the lungs, but very glad to get it in the bag. South African derbies are always the most physical games you can get in a year, and it set the standard for the competition — and our physicality can only go up from now,” the two-metre-tall second-rower said.
“We haven’t had any game contact for two or three months, so the body has been sore for the last two or three days. But the body will get used to it and the recovery will be quicker as the season goes on.
“We have a lot of continuity in our pack over the last few seasons, so that definitely gives us a lot of confidence. There is a lot of camaraderie in the pack, and as we get more games under the belt, it can only get better and better.
“As the coach always says, if you want to win the URC, you have to score tries. The URC is definitely a very fast game and you have to get around the park a lot, and get that continuity game and offload game to get ourselves in the right places — and put teams under pressure with tempo.
“That has been behind the plan in pre-season and all the running: to get ourselves lean.”