'I was living a double life, going to school in one of the rich and fancy suburbs, where I saw things that I could only dream of'
It was a lush autumnal afternoon in La Rochelle and the rugby men of the French port city – including winger Dillyn Leyds – were gathered at a teammate’s house to celebrate his son’s first birthday. They were watching Racing 92 and Saracens in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final, marvelling at the play on show and the wizardry the Parisians were weaving when a figure strode in front of the television.
In his lilting Cork brogue, Ronan O’Gara stood before his troops and delivered a double-dose of reality right between their eyes. “I remember this so clearly,” said Leyds, La Rochelle’s South African back-three man, to RugbyPass. “Everyone was in awe of the guys playing the semi-final – ‘look at that play’, ‘check that guy out’.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘Relax, man, we’re at a one-year-old’s birthday party!’ Only later did it get me thinking that this guy wants to do big things at the club. He told us: ‘Boys, we play good rugby, we win games, come fifth or sixth in the Top 14 and everyone is happy. What do you want to do? Why don’t you actually want to win a competition?’ That’s when everyone realised: ‘Okay, we have been challenged mentally, we will step up’.”
O’Gara’s fingerprints are all over the way La Rochelle go about their business, the brutality of their massive Will Skelton-driven pack and the majesty of their backline with Botia, a Fijian colossus, at its heart. Rugby swooned over his ‘KBA = Keep Ball Alive’ television interview, but it is his indomitable Munster-instilled lust to win that has been most telling. The blithe acceptance of mediocrity, the just-happy-to-be-there vibe, is so utterly alien to him and, you imagine, entirely repellent.
The Irishman had no hesitation in being "pretty direct" after a loss earlier this seasonhttps://t.co/BBDl17cP8G
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 20, 2021
Alongside Jono Gibbes, O’Gara has propelled La Rochelle to second place in the Top 14 with two games remaining. They are also in Saturday’s Champions Cup final for the first time where they meet mighty Toulouse, the only side above them in the league who are chasing an unprecedented fifth European crown.
Leyds left Cape Town and the Stormers for La Rochelle last year in the throes of the pandemic. This is his first season in France and, largely thanks to O’Gara, it has been transformative. “Sometimes, we’ll be waiting for breakfast at the training centre, you’re dishing out your cereal and Rog is behind you telling you about a play he has been thinking up.
“Holy s***, it’s 8am, the only thing I’m thinking about is waking up and finding the coffee. But all of a sudden, you start approaching the game differently. In our team meeting before playing Leinster, he was like, ‘Cool, we’re in a semi-final, but do you guys know who played in last year’s semi-finals?’ Nobody could name them all. He said, ‘Exactly, no-one cares about who played in the semi-final, only about who wins the final’. That changed the whole mindset.
“Whenever someone gets called up to a national team, he emphasises how special it is. Brice Dulin hadn’t played regularly for France for a long time and suddenly he is the NO1 full-back. I’m not saying it’s all Rog but it has a lot to do with him. He has come in and challenged the group and made us think, ‘Man, I want to be setting the standards’.
“Nobody talked about Raymond Rhule in South Africa when he left. Now, he is a European player of the year nominee and everyone is calling for him to be brought back into the Springboks squad. That is to do with Rog’s approach: ‘Why not us?’”
Leyds talks at length about the city, the La Rochelle architecture and history, and the wizened little man who gives him and the other foreign players weekly French lessons. He talks about Skelton, the enormous Wallaby lock with a penchant for baking as well as bludgeoning.
“This week, he made the boys some banana and choc chip bread. Rugby-wise, he is on top of everything. Will is in the training ground first watching opposition lineouts and he takes the younger locks with him. He has changed the way the pack has gone – everyone wants to be so dominant now in their carries and tackles. On the field, the guy is an absolute beast.”
Leyds talks about home, too, and how perfect it is that Saturday’s final pits two Cape Town boys from the wrong side of the tracks against each other. Two old friends scaling the very peak of European rugby. Cheslin Kolbe, his long-time Stormers roommate and perhaps the deadliest winger in the game, grew up in Kraaifontein, a suburb ravaged by crime and drugs and murder. Leyds is from Strand, to the southeast of the metropolis, where similar troubles lurk.
The Springboks winger has repeated to media something he said to the wife on Tuesday about the build-up to this Saturday's cup final with Toulouse https://t.co/nWmnGOkm8q
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 19, 2021
“We roomed together for four years at the Stormers. Whether we won or lost, we were the first ones out on tour. It was awesome, our last year was when his wife fell pregnant and that was when they moved to Toulouse. Seeing him now, the way he is with his kids and wife, is just amazing.
“He sent me a message straight after our semi-final saying, ‘This is unreal, can’t wait to see you in the final’. Who would have thought, from 2014 when we started playing together, to be playing in France and playing against each other at the 2021 Champions Cup final in Twickenham?
“It’s pretty awesome how rugby has done that in our lives, two guys from Cape Town, not the greatest of upbringings, to be playing in the biggest game in Europe. It’s pretty special.”
For Kolbe and Leyds, rugby was their ticket away from the sordid influences that surrounded them. Some of their friends became embroiled in criminality; some lost their lives. “I was lucky in the sense that when I was ten years old, I got the opportunity to go to a private school in Cape Town,” explained Leyds.
“I was living a double life, going to school in one of the rich and fancy suburbs, where I saw things that I could only dream of. I would go to people’s houses where their parents’ bedroom was as big as my entire house. It was crazy. On the weekend I would go home to Strand and there was nothing like that.
Dillyn Leyds believes staging this year's British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa in Australia "would be the biggest disappointment in South African rugby history".https://t.co/QXdx1tjXGR
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 5, 2021
“Even now, I hear about things happening in the community. My parents tell me, ‘Do you know this guy?’ Oh yeah, we grew up together. ‘He died on the weekend’. Or, ‘This guy was in a gang fight’. My friends are all over Strand, so they are involved in that.
“I am the lucky one because I got out but sometimes I go home and watch local club rugby, where my dad is the president, and I see those guys play. Holy s***, some are unbelievably talented but they are not going to get the opportunity I got. No one is going to come to Strand and scout someone for the Stormers. Those kids know they play rugby on a Saturday afternoon and that’s it. I’m just so grateful that I got those opportunities.”
These past few months have brought fresh disappointment in grim contrast to the dazzling elation of La Rochelle. Leyds won nine of his ten Springbok caps in 2017 but fought his way into the mix for the glorious Japan World Cup, before narrowly missing the final cut. More recently, the selectors have been in touch to tell him he is not being considered for the British and Irish Lions tour.
“I was really disappointed not to make the World Cup. I was there or thereabouts, on the bench against Australia and we were 28-10 up with 15 minutes remaining and I didn’t get on. I can’t do that much wrong to lose the game in 15 minutes when it’s basically in the bag.
“Having spoken to the coaches, I’m not in contention for the Lions tour. It’s now been made clear to me so I’m thinking that’s it. It is disappointing but I knew coming over here it was going to be hard to make the squad and the Boks haven’t played since the World Cup final, so you can’t think that they would be changing too much. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve just mentally made peace with the fact that that is probably it for me.”
Backing them for the win this weekend? pic.twitter.com/ugHB2Wou7K
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) May 20, 2021
His Boks dream may have faded but Leyds has found immense stimulation at la Rochelle. He feels more at ease with himself, less prone to allowing mistakes to consume him. The semi-final, a rugged triumph over Leinster, was very nearly a harrowing experience.
“I remember at half-time in the Leinster game after I dropped basically every single kick-off that came my way, I was so upset with myself. I was thinking, this is probably the worst 40 minutes of my life. Rog walked in with the biggest smile on his face, came straight to me and was like, ‘Are you okay out there, do you want me to get you some sunglasses?’ That lifted me; it was a relief for me.
“Three or four years ago, I wouldn’t have wanted to touch the ball again. I’d have been scared to make another mistake and then another after that. I have really let that side go and enjoyed myself on the field a lot more. In that game, I was able to laugh at myself.”
And so, to Twickenham. La Rochelle against Toulouse, Leyds against Kolbe, Strand against Kraaifontein. The virgin contenders against the decorated juggernaut. The odds are not in Leyds’ – nor his team’s – favour but that will not faze him. They have been stacked against him making it since his earliest days in South Africa. To win will take all of O’Gara’s guile and his players’ brilliance, but it is far from beyond them. Why La Rochelle? Why not.
ICYMI: Will Skelton was excellent when speaking to RugbyPass recently on:
Life at @staderochelais
Sourcing size 19 boots ?
Tackle height & 'big boys' having no excuse'
His life-long battle with diet ???
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 18, 2021
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