New Western Province lock Anton van Zyl says it doesn’t get any “better or bigger” than facing the British and Irish Lions.
WP will attempt to become the first team to lower the B&I Lions colours on the current tour, when the two teams meet at Newlands on Saturday and Van Zyl says it is “surreal” that he will be part of the occasion.
Speaking to rugby365.com, during a break in training for Saturday’s showdown, Van Zyl said he was “incredibly excited” about finally making his WP debut.
The former Rondebosch Boys scholar – who spent two years at Oxford University and claiming two Oxford Blues against Cambridge – joined up with Province only a fortnight ago, after signing from the troubled Golden Lions team.
“It has been a long time coming,” he said about his debut, after having left Cape Town years ago to study in the UK, before launching his professional rugby career in Johannesburg while attempting to establish himself in the business world.
“I never expected it to happen,” Van Zyl told rugby365, adding: “At the function [earlier this week] with the former WP players, it dawned on me that I was at the game [when WP played against the B&I Lions] 12 years ago.
“I watched Province take quite a healthy lead, but unfortunately the Lions came back [to win 38-21], but it was still an awesome game.
“If somebody had told me then that 12 years on I would be starting against the B&I Lions at Newlands, I would have told them to go have their head read.”
Speaking about his time since arriving in Cape Town from Johannesburg, Van Zyl said he was “very excited”.
“It has been a massive two weeks for me,” he said, adding that the energy around the WP team is “phenomenal”.
Having watched Paul O’Connell’s B&I Lions class going through the first four matches on tour unbeaten, Van Zyl Province will face “as tough a challenge as one could expect”.
“They will be incredibly physical up front,” he the 29-year-old lock said, adding that they are not expecting anything too fancy from the tourists.
“They will be looking to be direct, to be hard, to take us on at the breakdown and to take us on at the set pieces. We’ll have to front up,” he added.
Van Zyl was quick to point out that the Lions have a lot of variation in their armoury and can play with width.
“Out wide they like to strike with everything they have and they throw all their backs into it,” he said.
While the unbeaten tourists certainly pose a major threat and WP will start as underdogs – considering that they are sans a host of their Springboks – the lock feels the team chosen for this game is a “wonderful” combination.
“There are some key combinations that have come through the Super 14 together,” he said of a team that will be without players like Andries Bekker, Schalk Burger, Jean de Villiers (all on Bok duty), Conrad Jantjes, Brian Mujati, Hilton Lobberts, Sireli Naqelevuki and Adriaan Fondse (all out injured).
“We are going to rely a lot on those key combinations.
“I’m talking specifically about the front row, the back row, the No.9, No.10 and No.12 combination. Then there’s Joe Pietersen, who was outstanding towards the end of the Super 14. Looking at our wings – Bobes [Gcobani Bobo] is one of the most experienced campaigners and Tondi [Tonderai Chavhanga] is one of the fastest people in the world.
“We’ve got a lot of experience in the positions I believe will count, and the combinations that count.
“That [experience] makes it easier for the new guys to slot in and it makes it easier for me as a new guy to have an established front row in front of me and an established back row behind me.”
Speaking of his decision to leave the troubled Golden Lions – a team hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks – Van Zyl said it was with a touch of sadness.
“During my time at the Lions I really became close with a lot of those players, but as you see in this game, your ‘season’ is a short term of events and guys are going to move on. A lot of my close friends at the Lions have moved on before I moved on. It is part of life and part of the game.
“It was sad to say goodbye, but for me it is a new beginning and the fact that it was a chance to come [home] to Western Province just makes that change doubly more exciting.”
Van Zyl said it was “mainly a rugby decision” to return to his roots – the chance to play in the Province set-up.
Having already had a stint abroad and a good few years in first class rugby, Van Zyl does not see himself retire anytime soon.
“I will continue playing rugby as long as I enjoy it,” he said, adding: “I’m here in Cape Town to make a significant contribution to the squad, both in the Currie Cup and the Super 14. And while I feel I’m making that contribution, in whatever manner, I will continue.”Tweet