History will be made this evening at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast as the Toyota Cheetahs become the first southern hemisphere club to play a competitive championship fixture in the northern hemisphere.
The Cheetahs and the Southern Kings are the two South African sides whose introduction makes it the Guinness Pro14 this season and, while the former’s coach Rory Duncan is fully focused on this evening’s landmark clash at Ulster, he confesses that he can’t help but cast his mind forward to February when he will take his team back to the country he calls his second home.
Duncan, who has Dundonian grandparentage, spent two years at the start of the century playing for Watsonians and, while it is Glasgow his Cheetahs will face as fellow members of Conference A, he is still planning for a capital catch-up.
“Edinburgh is a very special place for me,” said the 40-year-old former lock. “I still have my place in Edinburgh [rented out] and still have very good friends over there that I have been back to see quite a few times. I have very fond memories of my days there.”
When the Cheetahs would get their trip to Scotland was one of the first things Duncan looked for when the fixtures were released and he added: “When we play in Glasgow, I am pretty sure that we are going to stay in Edinburgh. I think that would be fantastic for the guys who have not been there and experienced it, which I think is 99 per cent of them. It is going to be a fantastic experience. We are working with a younger group of players who enjoy travelling, that is the one positive – the guys do not really get tired of travel. For the core group it is their fourth season together but the average age is still around 24. It is a young team. The guys are excited to experience new places.”
The Cheetahs will host Edinburgh in November, a month after hosting Glasgow in Bloemfontein, and Scottish-qualified Duncan had some brief experiences of being part of the capital side’s Celtic League squad when he was at Watsonians, though he never took the field for them.
“What happened during the time was that I ended up playing for two seasons and was on the bench for Edinburgh but at that time it was different, you played for your club and they did not act as a feeder to the professional teams in the same way.
“It was only at the back end of the season that we were able to represent Edinburgh.
“It was a fantastic experience even though I did not have the opportunity [to move on to the pro teams]. I ended up coming back to South Africa and playing for the Cheetahs and played for them for three and a half seasons.”
Those Watsonians years remain treasured ones to Duncan, who is regarded as one of South Africa’s most promising young coaches.
“Scott Hastings had just come to the end of his career but was still hanging around the club and him and Gavin were people we looked up to at the club having been involved there for so long,” he recalled.
“[Edinburgh hooker] Neil Cochrane was one of the young boys coming through, and there was Alan Nash, who has now got a property company.
“I remember us more senior guys used to phone Neil and Alan and pretend we were a journalist and we would do fake interviews with them on a Friday over the phone.”
Asked what his best memory of the Myreside adventure was, Duncan replied: “That is a difficult one. There were a lot of good things and good wins but one of the things I was most excited about was that I had not played much sevens rugby and got the opportunity to play for Watsonians in the Peebles Sevens and we ended up winning the tournament. That was something different and something that I remember. I still have the little medal.”
Duncan is confident that his Cheetahs can make a positive impact on the Pro14 and deal with the logistical challenges that their trans-hemispheric odyssey presents. “It is certainly a lot easier travelling here than going to New Zealand with the time difference and all that,” he said.
“It is a lot easier to adjust and get into that training regime. You can climb off the plane, check into your hotel and then do a training session that afternoon without having to worry too much about the guys being absolutely shattered because they have not adjusted to the time zone.”
Australian fly-half Christian Lealiifano will make his Ulster debut in tonight’s game. The 29-year-old, who signed a short-term deal with the Belfast club, returned to action for the Brumbies in June, having recovered from leukaemia. Jean Deysel and John Cooney will also make competitive Ulster debuts.
Cheetahs are without regular captain Francois Venter because of his involvement with the Springboks in the Rugby Championship while another Springbok, back-rower Oupa Mohoje, is also missing because of a rib injury.