16 December 2022
London Irish hooker Mike Willemse has underlined the size of the opportunity awaiting the Exiles on their first trip to South Africa as a Club to take on DHL Stormers.
Declan Kidney’s men are visiting the Rainbow Nation for a Heineken Champions Cup second round fixture against the United Rugby Championship (URC) champions, both sides searching for a first win of their European campaign.
After opening losses against Top 14 sides Montpellier Hérault and Clermont Auvergne, both Clubs will nevertheless be encouraged by their attitude in defeat with strong periods in their Round 1 fixtures.
After a few days on the Western Cape, the Cape Town native has outlined that he and the squad are “relishing” such a challenge against Willemse’s former team at the DHL Stadium.
“We have been at the High Performance Centre here, which I am very familiar with and I knew a few faces there.
“It’s weird being here with a different team, but good to see some family and friends around here too,” the former Western Province representative stated.
“Between myself, Benhard [Janse van Rensburg] and Lovejoy [Chawatama], we have a lot of people coming down to watch us - we’ll see who can get the most!
“It is a lovely stadium and a special ground, I played there once in my younger days and it’s great to experience a massive arena.
“The surrounding scenery is lovely, it’s a nice move for them from the Newlands Stadium, and we’re really looking forward to it.”
A draw as testing as Irish’s will be few and far between in this year’s edition of the Champions Cup, something the hooker is embracing with the same measure of caution as enthusiasm.
The rare opportunity to return to his homeland is one he couldn’t afford to miss, especially in wake of taking a heavy hit in Irish’s Gallagher Premiership triumph against Newcastle Falcons.
“I knew I had to be ready for this one,” Willemse joked, who played for Western Province and Stormers between 2013 and 2016.
“I can’t lie, when I saw the Stormers and Montpellier as our draw it was quite exciting, we knew the challenges ahead.
“It’s a good chance for us as a squad to really connect throughout a busy season.
“We get to enjoy each other’s company in a pretty special location in Cape Town, I’ve shown some of the boys around and have got to take in some of the South African culture.
“It’s important for us to work hard when we need to work hard, but also take a step away from the game when that focused isn’t fully required.”
Saturday’s opponents, John Dobson’s DHL Stormers, will put Irish’s work throughout the last week to the test in the DHL Stadium.
A starting XV loaded with eight capped South African internationals will no doubt ask questions of the tourists, but Willemse is confident in the approach of Irish.
“They obviously come with quite a big reputation, but we see this as a huge opportunity for us.
“We really have to stamp our mark on the competition, going up against their front-row will be a big task for us but we are taking that head-on.
“We are quite disappointed after the last result against Montpellier, although we got a red card we still created enough opportunities to win and gave a little bit more confidence in approaching this game.
“We are still disappointed we didn’t take those opportunities, but to do that well against the French champions shows how much of a threat we can be.
“The Stormers will bring a different challenge in Cape Town, they have a team full of Springboks, but we relish opportunities like these.”
With the format of the competition meaning Irish play out four games in their pool stage campaign, points will be at a premium throughout Europe’s premier Club tournament.
The pressure such a schedule creates is something Willemse and his Clubmates are embracing, nevertheless, when going up against the champions of the URC and Top 14 alike.
“To be honest, we are taking things game-by-game and we haven’t thought any further than this weekend’s challenge.
“That’s the key to this competition, we showed that we can compete last week and we’re doing the best we can to get a win now, which would be massive for us.
“We fully believe we can do that.”