It’s quite the run of England and Harlequins games for Alex Dombrandt at the minute. Twickenham versus France, Aviva Stadium versus Ireland, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium versus Saracens and now DHL Stadium against the Stormers, all on successive Saturdays. London, Dublin, London again and now Cape Town. Such is the fast-moving, glamour lifestyle of the modern-day rugby pro.
The sobering issue with it all, though, is the lack of Ws. England were roughed up by France and Ireland, limping away from yet another Guinness Six Nations campaign with more losses than wins. Then came last weekend’s London derby, Sarries getting the jump on Quins to leave their playoff aspirations on life support.
It won’t get any easier this weekend as Harlequins, who have never before won a Heineken Champions Cup knockout tie, are tasked with breaking that very unwanted sequence by tackling the reigning URC champions in their salubrious South African backyard.
Dombrandt’s hunch is that fans should be braced for a classic. “They [Stormers] are probably the most similar team to us out there at the moment. Two teams that like to play attacking styles of rugby, two teams that are dangerous on turnover attack when there are loose balls.
“It has got all the makings for a very exciting game and a lot of points to be scored. It looks like nice weather, so nice dry ball. It is going to suit both teams so it’s whoever turns up on the day.
“No Quins team has got through this round in the Champions Cup. That is our goal and that is the motivation for this week. We have got a massive challenge and know what a story it could be, coming to Cape Town against one of the best teams and picking up a win and progressing. What a story that would be. That is what we are trying to do.
“When you talk about the spine, you talk about the eight, nine, 10, 12 and I love playing with DC (Danny Care), Marcus (Smith) and Andre (Esterhuizen), they are all great players. I feel like we understand each other a lot and almost know what they are going to do a couple of phases ahead of time almost.
“We are very lucky to be out here. We have spoken about that and how lucky we are to be involved in matches like these. These are the matches you look back on at the end of your career and look back on with fond memories, so hopefully we can get the win this weekend and look back on it and think, ‘Wow, what a special week that was’.”
The 6,000-mile trek south won’t be used by Harlequins as an excuse if things don’t work out. The Stormers ironically had to make a similar journey having played at Leinster in Ireland last weekend, so that evens things up somewhat.
And anyway, Quins have made sure to enjoy themselves and embrace every moment of their second Champions Cup game in South Africa in 16 weeks after they opened the tournament with a loss to the Sharks in Durban last December. Dombrandt sure sounded like he was enjoying himself when he popped up on the Harlequins media zoom call on Thursday evening.
“We had a day off Wednesday, so a few of us went and played golf. Been down to the Waterfront and enjoyed some good food. The sushi out here is unbelievable. Enjoyed some good sushi so it was good, we managed to switch off as well.
“The messaging this week has been when we are on and then when we are off, we’re off. Anything to do with rugby, whether it is a meeting or gym or training we are on and everyone is switched on and everyone is ultimately pushing towards that end goal at the weekend but when it is your downtime you make sure you switch off from rugby, get out of the hotel, explore this great city that we are lucky to be in.
“You can’t come all the way to Cape Town and not experience what it has got to offer. Definitely, it is important to enjoy each other’s company, and that in turn grows the connection stronger which is always important.
“We are quite lucky as rugby players to be able to travel the world and see countries that if we didn’t play rugby, we wouldn’t get to visit so I definitely get excited for these trips, especially when we are lucky enough to come to somewhere like Cape Town, it would be silly not to get excited for it.
“You look at some of the players they have got, they have superstars across the board. This competition is great because you can put yourself up against some of the best players in the world. We are looking forward to the challenge. It has been a great week so far, enjoying the Cape Town sunshine which is a bit different from the weather back home, so we have had a good week.”
It turns out to be Dombrandt’s second visit to Mother City as he visited years ago as a teenager with the Fisher School in Purley. “I came on school rugby tour to South Africa in 2015 and we actually trained this morning at Wynberg Boys’ High School in Cape Town, one of the schools my school played against. That was quite cool to go back there, and then just going up Table Mountain, Robben Island and things like that when I was on tour, experiencing those things.”
If there is a downside to the inclusion of South African teams in the Champions Cup, it’s the impact on the numbers of travelling support. In Paris in January, a destination much closer to home, Harlequins’ fans created quite a football-style racket at Racing which helped them score four tries in a gripping one-point loss.
None of Dombrandt’s family or friends have made the long trek to the southern hemisphere, and the indications are that Harlequins fans will be few and far between. “We are very fortunate at Quins with our fanbase, a very loyal fan base, and they travel far and wide to come and support us. We’d like you to think if they can afford it, they will be here, but we understand if it is a bit out of their reach.”
What Dombrandt doesn’t want to be out of his reach on a personal level is World Cup selection later this year with England. He started all their games in the recent Guinness Six Nations, the first time he had worn the No8 for five matches on the bounce like that. However, precision was generally lacking in his performances and the competition for places is now set to ratchet up with Zach Mercer coming back from France to stake a claim in this summer’s build-up.
“Physically you always feel better for it,” he claimed, reflecting on his run of England games. “Being involved in Test match weeks, you always feel like you are in physically better condition and specifically looking back on the Six Nations just gone, I learned a lot of lessons.
“It was the first campaign as new England with the new coaching staff, so just trying to embrace all of that and understand what direction we are going in and just throwing myself into it.
“I always feel like I play my best rugby when I get a run of games together, so it was nice to start all of the games. It’s about coming back to Quins now and putting my best foot forward and hopefully putting my name in the hat for the World Cup.
“A couple of months away with England, it takes its toll. It’s Test match rugby. It definitely takes its toll but when you come back to Quins there is that fresh energy of being back in the environment at club level and just massive excitement. There is still enough in the tank to get through this weekend.”2023-04-01T09:55:06Z dg43tfdfdgfd