South African Izak van der Westhuizen admits he will be playing to honour the memory of iconic compatriot and statesman Nelson Mandela when making his first Heineken Cup start for Edinburgh Rugby against Gloucester at Murrayfield tomorrow.
The death of former president Mandela weighed heavily with the considerable South African contingent at Edinburgh when they met to finalise preparations.
Van der Westhuizen, the second-row from the North Cape, said: “Mr Mandela was a brilliant leader and an inspiration who enjoyed rugby. I will try to honour him, as loads will try to do around the world. I got a text from (team-mate) Wicus Blaauw to tell me of the passing and immediately turned on the television.”
Politics of a rugby nature will inevitably impinge tomorrow, with Gloucester among English clubs preparing to say farewell to the current European set-up in a dispute over competition ownership.
Van der Westhuizen believes that could provide an even greater edge on top of the fact winning at home is key to Edinburgh keeping their qualification hopes alive.
“There’s a lot of politics surrounding the competition and I don’t know what is going on in that respect,” he said. “But Gloucester will be coming to prove a point. They (the English Premiership organisation) don’t feel we deserve to be in the competition and I think we have a point to prove as well.”
The South African is braced for a formidable test, but is buoyed by last weekend’s excellent 43-10 win over Connacht. “It’s going to be a hard, physical game and fortunately the hard pre-season we did is paying off, as shown by the way we beat Connacht,” said Van der Westhuizen.
“We gave a massive defensive effort in the first half and at the end of second half sealed it with tries. We have to give the leaders of the group credit for pushing to make sure we got the bonus point.
“By rushing back for kick-offs they knew we could score again and again.”
Injuries blighted Van der Westhuizen’s debut season with Edinburgh and his only previous taste of Europe came from off the bench last time out in Perpignan. However, the 27-year-old knows the significance both collectively and on an individual basis.
“The Heineken Cup is something everybody lifts themselves to another level for,” he said. “Europe is where we want to be playing and I would love success to make up for the fact that at the (Free State) Cheetahs we didn’t have very good campaigns before I left.
“Winning big games and trophies are what we are in it for and with my contract up at the end of this season I’d love to persuade the coaches to keep me on. My baby is settled into nursery and my wife has a job.
“Everything is good off the pitch so, hopefully, I can get an extension.”
Continuing South African influence would sit well with Grant Gilchrist, the Scotland cap who will partner Van der Westhuizen at second row for the sixth time this season.
Gilchrist said: “I have learned a lot from the South African coaches Alan Solomons and Omar Mouneimne. We are always trying to address the culture of the club and give it more identity because we want to inspire people and make them proud. That has always been the aim but nowadays we are a lot more confrontational.
“We have more of an edge and that is no bad thing; it’s something we maybe needed. We could attack well but couldn’t defend so well. We are bringing that hard nose to defence with an ability to bully teams and get on top.
“That is something we are striving to bring so that Edinburgh Rugby will be in a better place, especially as we have still got the players who can cut teams up in attack.”
Gilchrist is one of two changes from the team which routed Connacht as Edinburgh seek to celebrate their 100th European Cup appearance.
Ross Ford’s return at hooker is the other alteration to the side and coach Solomons is delighted to continue to have call on last week’s man-of-the-match, Cornell Du Preez, at flanker. “Cornell will continue to develop,” said the coach. “He’s a young boy of 22, a very talented all-round player. He has physicality, the skills and work rate. Across the board he is strong and what he is getting now is experience.”
If that was fulsome praise, it paled compared to former Springbok assistant coach Solomons’ tribute to Mandela.
“He (Mandela) was quite an incredible man to spend that length of time (27 years) in jail standing up for what he believed in and he was obviously 100 per cent right ... and then to become our president when we became a democracy.
“He created the Rainbow Nation and from a specific rugby perspective he used the 1995 World Cup to further that when support for the Springboks across all communities was something to be seen.
“History will judge him as one of the great men of all time.”