Cape Town – French club rugby has a reputation for being one of the toughest environments in the game, where off-the-ball tactics and cheap shots are the order of the day.
The Stormers will be entering that cauldron for the first time on Saturday when they face Clermont Auvergne at the Stade Marcel-Michelin – an intimidating 19 000-capacity arena where the local fans in yellow and blue will let you know exactly what they think.
A man with intimate knowledge of what the Capetonians can expect on Saturday is veteran flank Deon Fourie, who is familiar with the region, having played for neighbouring Lyon from 2014 to 2019, before moving to Grenoble for two more years ahead of his fairytale return to the Stormers last year.
“I think those days (of off-the-ball niggle) are gone. With the TV and technology around, I don’t think a nitty-gritty game is in French rugby like in the past,” Fourie said.
“Clermont have always been a team that’s up there, in the Top 14 play-offs and Champions Cup, so it’s nice to be back.
“We landed in Lyon, where I spent five years of my career, so it was good to see all the places again when driving past.
“It will be nice for them (the Stormers players) to experience that stadium especially. It’s almost a type of Newlands (arena) – the crowd in those stadiums are all on top of you, and the crowd is always very joyful and supportive of the game.
“And then the cold weather, coming from Cape Town and 30°C and landing here at 0°C was a bit of a shock! But we will get used to it.”
Now 36, Fourie has seen it all in France, and has been so good in the United Rugby Championship (URC) that he became a Springbok this year.
The Champions Cup, though, is another level up from the URC. The French clubs, especially, are flush with cash, and Clermont boast a number of big names such as Test wing Damian Penaud and flyhalf Jules Plisson, as well as powerful forwards like Sebastien Vahaamahina and Argentina lock Tomas Lavanini.
There is even a South African blindside flank in Jacobus van Tonder, who can also play at lock.
“From my past experience, when you enter the Champions Cup, the guys tend to raise their performances because it’s such a prestige competition. That is usually when they put in all their big stars – because it’s a big thing to win the Champions Cup,” Fourie said.
“They will come out all guns blazing, and it will be a good test for us as well for a first time playing in the tournament.
“A big team like Clermont are always packed with international stars and quality players.
“The forwards will be the biggest task in the beginning. We saw in the Springboks’ game against France that they are quite dominant upfront, and they have evolved quite a bit in that department as well.
“They’ve got quality strike players at the back, like Damian Penaud – who has been scoring great tries for them and France. So, I think it’s going to be an all-round good match.”
But the Stormers are the URC champions, and have won six out of eight games this season, with a draw and a loss.
They have star Boks in Damian Willemse and Steven Kitshoff back on duty this week, and Fourie himself will look to pounce at the breakdowns.
“It will be a Test-match mentality, but we play an attacking style because our forwards did well in the URC – and also last week as well – to let our backs run the ball like we did,” the No 6 said.