Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, SIKHUMBUZO NOTSHE talks about sweating bullets with the Blitzboks, earning his Springbok debut and what makes John Dobson the right man for the Stormers hot seat.
Sport24 asked: How did it feel to win the Currie Cup for the first time?
Sikhumbuzo Notshe: It was special winning my first Currie Cup title in 2014. When I heard that Schalk Burger and Jean de Villiers had actually never won a Currie Cup, it gave me goosebumps because those guys are legends in their own right. As a kid at school, I looked up to them and then to rub shoulders with them as teammates was special. It was a dream for me to win a Currie Cup, but I never thought it would happen so soon. It was still my under-21 year, which I was enjoying, and I never reckoned I would get called up to the senior team at that stage of my playing career. Winning the Currie Cup final 33-21 in Durban in 2017 was even better and still gives me goose bumps looking back. We were down 21-10 nearing half-time and I turned to Chris van Zyl and said, “Pickles, do you think we still have a chance?” He replied, “We just need one try before half-time and we’ve got these 'okes'.” Dillyn Leyds scored a try in the corner and we trailed 21-15 at the break. Heading into the tunnel at half-time, we started chanting, “We’ve got them, we’ve got them.” The home team were the favourites to win that final and we went to Durban with a strong underdog tag. Before heading to King Shaka Airport, Dobbo visited Doc Cecil Moss, the then oldest living Springbok and the latter said, “I know you boys have got it.” Doc Moss was a special figure in our team and he used to hand out our match jerseys. To lose him the day before the final added fuel to our fire. In contrast, losing the Currie Cup final last season was a tough pill to swallow. Yes, there was no trophy to show for our efforts, and people always look for trophies and say results matter, but internally as a group we know that 2018 was one of our best seasons. We made memories and enjoyed each other’s company and had fun along the way. At the end of the day, we came up short and that’s life.
Sport24 asked: What is incoming Stormers coach John Dobson like?
Sikhumbuzo Notshe: I don’t know where to start when speaking about Dobbo because he is a special human being. He has played a huge role in my rugby development and my maturation as a man. Touching on the culture Dobbo instils within a team, whenever we took a bus trip he always insisted that we knew the bus driver’s name. When asked for his reasoning behind it, he said: “Gents, you’ve got to remember that there are many people that do a lot for this team behind the scenes.” His message was: Forget about the rugby we play on a Saturday for a moment because there are people outside of the team that make it function. For the bus driver to leave his family and drive us around was special in itself, so we cultivated a culture of appreciation and gratitude. He always told us to be appreciative of the things that we get as professional players because one day those things will be taken away from us. I’m just happy that Dobbo has achieved what he has in his coaching career, but he is the first to admit that he has never just done it by himself. He has always assembled a strong management group that has worked together to achieve the success that he has in coaching. He is a very good man and, more than anything else, his man-management is amazing.
Sport24 asked: What informed your decision to join the Blitzboks?
Sikhumbuzo Notshe: I had been playing 15-man rugby for so long and I wanted to experience something different. I wanted to learn why the Blitzboks were and still are the best system that we have in the country. I wanted to see how they operated during the day because they are highly successful and have won back-to-back Sevens World Series titles. As a person, I wanted to learn why the Springbok Sevens team are successful. What I learned is that nobody is bigger than anybody else within the team. Coach Neil Powell would fill up water bottles before a training session and seeing him do that solidified the message that there was no hierarchical ranking and there was no gap between junior and senior players. Everyone respected each other and there was a system where everything just needed to fall into place. There was a bigger picture at play, which made that group tight as a unit. I learned a lot during my time with the Blitzboks and another aspect of their success is work ethic. You can have talented Sevens players, but without work ethic you are nothing. Training in Stellenbosch is not easy because in summer it’s very hot. We used to go for our runs in the early mornings to try avoid the heat, but you can’t. My first training sessions with the team were really tough and you start asking yourself questions like, “Why did I even start this?” because that is how tough those sessions are. Very few people see the hard work that the Blitzboks put in, and they work tirelessly. The senior players set the example and lead from the front. I learned that I didn’t have to look far for inspiration because it was actually right in front of me. As a player, you might look up to Tiger Woods and Usain Bolt, but you actually have some mean role models in your midst.
Sport24 asked: How proud were your family of your Bok debut?
Sikhumbuzo Notshe: My dad was a rugby man himself and, when he lived in Cape Town, he played for Western Province Disa back in the day as well as club rugby. He introduced me to the game and was very proud when I earned my debut for the Springboks in 2018. He always says to me, “Who would have thought that I would have a son who plays for the Springboks?” He is very thankful to the almighty for what has happened to me and says I must never forget where I come from. He always checks up on me because he wants my name to be known for good not bad. I have proud parents and siblings who support and follow up with me, which keeps me grounded. I like to touch other people’s lives in any way that I can and giving back to my rugby club in Nyanga, through Adidas, is special. I didn’t realise I was a role model until someone asked me, “Did you know that you touch many people’s lives?” I see myself as an ordinary person with a talent for the game. Being Springbok number 900 on the dot is special. We played away from home for my debut, but we were still representing South Africa. It was a proud moment for me, but I had butterflies before the game. (Notshe debuted for the Springboks when they played against Wales in a one-off Test in the States).
Sport24 asked: How would you describe Rassie Erasmus as a coach?
Sikhumbuzo Notshe: Rassie is a special man in his own right. I first came across Rassie in 2016 when he was handing out the Springbok jerseys for the June Tests against Ireland. At the time, I played against the England Saxons and wanted to wear that Springbok jersey so badly. Before he left for Munster, I said I just want to be a Bok. When he returned as director of rugby and head coach, he gave me a call and said he wanted me to be part of the team that goes to Washington to play against Wales. He said he believed in my talent. My relationship with Rassie started three years ago and from then onwards it has grown. He picked me against the English, I played under him the whole year and then we ended off with a good Barbarians tour at the end of last year. The week I started my first Test against Australia in the Rugby Championship, I must give credit to coach Rassie. I was set to be on the bench, but then Warren Whiteley was ruled out with a groin injury. I was playing the biggest game of my life, but Rassie, the coaching staff and my teammates kept me calm. When comparing Test rugby to Super Rugby, the former is even quicker and more physical and you have to be on top of your game. (Notshe has played six Tests for the Springboks, the last of which came against New Zealand in the Rugby Championship return leg encounter in Pretoria in October, 2018).
Sport24 asked: Was it tough not to feature during the end-of-year tour?
Sikhumbuzo Notshe: Where there is honesty there’s nothing tough about it. If a coach says to you, “Listen, you are going to play this game, but you’re not going to play that game” you can live with it. During the end-of-year tour to the northern hemisphere in 2018, I sat with Duane Vermeulen and Warren, was a sponge and learned from them. There is no grey area in that, but when you don’t know where you stand with a coach then that becomes a problem. One thing I can say is that Rassie is a damned honest coach. It’s lovely to be in an environment where there is honesty and nothing is said behind someone else’s back. Going into last season’s year-end tour, everyone knew where they stood and that was the best part of it. In terms of playing for the Barbarians, it’s a bucket list item which every rugby player wants to tick off at some stage of their career. Being with the Barbarians was the best week of my life. It was a great experience rubbing shoulders with players from other countries and, from my personal point of view, getting to know your peers is what rugby is all about.