Geoff Cross has welcomed the arrival of Edinburgh Rugby’s “Africa corps” as a means of providing a harder edge and driving up competition for places.
As he prepares to make only his fifth start in 16 Edinburgh matches, away to Ospreys tonight, largely due to Scotland commitments and subsequent injury, the 30-year-old prop forward insisted that an ideal balance IS being struck in terms of imported talent and giving Scots-qualified players like himself opportunities.
“I’m happy the balance is there for Scots to set their stall out,” said Cross.
At the same time, in referring to how South Africans Izak van der Westhuizen, Willem Nel and Wicus Blaau are in the squad for the trip to Wales, Cross said: “The South Africans are physically very direct and very powerful athletes. They are not afraid of the hard-nosed, abrasive, direct, physical parts of the game. That is something we can learn to make a part of our game stronger.”
A competitive edge was certainly apparent in the final act of Edinburgh’s last game when a pack containing former Orange Free Staters Van der Westhuizen and Nel along with Blaauw (ex-Southern Kings) disrupted the Dragons’ scrum so comprehensively that a winning penalty ensued.
Another one-time Super 15 South African, Cornell du Preez, will soon arrive from the Super Kings to spice up the battle for back-row places and Cross can’t wait to be part of such a battle-hardened unit as he continues his comeback from a shoulder injury sustained playing for Scotland on tour against Samoa during the summer.
“I ran straight into a Pacific Islander and they can be very solid people,” he said. “His gristle was stronger than my gristle and for a while my shoulder joint was not as stable as it might have been. Fortunately things are better now and I look forward to facing the Ospreys.
“The coaches have handed me an opportunity to put my case forward and this highlights the pressure we have at Edinburgh that we can use to drive performances and standards up. It’s a great thing for the club.
“I was really proud of the boys’ scrummaging last week.
“I saw real passion in the way they performed and worked together, the way they created opportunities for other guys in the team, be it territorial kicks or kicks at goal.
“I was really proud to see the pack working so hard and getting rewards for it, too.”
According to Van der Westhuizen, there was even more to the success than might have met the eye and subsequent photographs of a jubilant Edinburgh celebrating at full time spoke louder than words.
“It was very good to win a very physical game with a final scrum penalty,” he said. “The photos spoke about the emotions the guys have been going through. It has been a hard pre-season and everybody wants the club to do very well. The pictures at the end showed how much everybody wanted it.
“Actually, it went beyond a result. It was about us bonding as a forward unit.”
Van der Westhuizen, who has had to adapt to nothern hemisphere rugby, admitted: “Games are different from back home. In South Africa you are used to running rugby. Here it is in your face and you aren’t allowed to attack wide out every time. I like this physicality I am now experiencing.”
The 6ft 6in and 18st forward could, in fact, have gone down the athletics route for sporting stardom.
“When I was at school I competed in track and field, throwing just about everything I could get my hands on,” he said. “But there is such a rugby culture in South Africa that there was never really much doubt which sport I’d follow, especially after an invitation to go to university in Bloemfontain and play for the Cheetahs.”
Now he is throwing everything into Edinburgh’s cause while coach Alan Solomons has faith in his team’s ability to produce back-to-back wins.
“The first thing you have got to do is get your performance right. Getting the performance right will mean a very competitive match,” said Solomons.