‘I might lend him a tenner to stream it,’ laughs Vincent Koch, as he contemplates whether Rassie Erasmus will be watching Sunday’s game against Richmond at the Athletic Ground.
The thought of the Springboks’ director of rugby tuning into a live stream of a second division match would have seemed laughable 18 months ago, but a lot has changed since the World Cup final.
‘I’ve spoken to Andy Edwards, our old strength and conditioning guy at Saracens, who is now with the Springboks,’ adds Koch. ‘They go through every game. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing in South Africa, Japan or the Championship. I guarantee you they will be looking… but hopefully they didn’t see the game against Cornish Pirates!’
Saracens tighthead prop Vincent Koch won the World Cup with South Africa 18 months ago
For Koch, it has been a humbling experience. The South Africa prop has gone from demolishing the English scrum in Japan, to being given a taste of his own medicine in a defeat by the Pirates. Today, he will be scrummaging against part-time loosehead Jonny Harris, who is a massage therapist.
‘It’s been tough, I’m not going to lie,’ says Koch. ‘I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy ride with 50-point wins. I played in the second division back at home in South Africa, with the Pumas, and you always had this extra motivation against the top teams. There would be a Springbok or someone in the opposition team and you would want to prove a point.
‘Coming into the Championship with a load of international players, the opposition guys will have a point to prove. We experienced that in the first game against Cornish. That hurt. My personal performance was awful. The opposition forwards are big boys, so the physicality is definitely up there.
Koch won the Champions Cup in 2017 and 2019: two of three titles the side won in four years
‘As a pack, we were quite embarrassed to be Saracens players. Our strength is to dominate opposition forwards so our backs can score the lovely tries, but on that day, they dominated us.
‘[Saracens boss] Mark McCall said after the game: “You’re going to get heat on social media… don’t read it”. When thousands of people tag you in it, it’s hard not to see it. I got loads of heat and I want to prove those people wrong.
‘That match gave us a wake-up call. Now we know what the teams are about and we realised how hard we will have to fight.’
Rugby has been stripped back to basics. Cold showers, and beers on the bus. In the age of live coaching-box analysis, the club have had to adapt to issues like a lack of Wi-Fi and power supplies.
But now the 31-year-old is in the second tier, lining up opposite a part-time massage therapist
Koch joked he would lend South Africa boss Rassie Erasmus a tenner to watch his matches
‘A lot of the boys have been away with the Six Nations, but there’s an unbelievable vibe and we’re trying to make it fun,’ says Koch. ‘We all start playing this game because we love it, and sometimes things get a little serious. There’s loads of pressure and we forget why we start playing. This is almost stepping away and reminding me why I play.’
Koch will be joined today by two of Saracens’ household names from the Six Nations. Hooker Jamie George has returned from England duty, while Scotland winger Sean Maitland is named on the bench. Lions coach Warren Gatland will also be keeping a close eye.
‘The energy Jamie brought into training this week was unbelievable,’ says Koch. ‘He wasn’t upset he had to play, he is motivated. I said to him, “Are you ready for this?” and he said “Mate, I’m so keen”. It’s going to be unbelievable.
International hooker Jamie George (second right) is set to start against Richmond on Sunday
‘If you asked them a few months ago, most of them would probably have said that they won’t play in the Champ. If you look at where we stand at the moment, and where they stand, they are keen to play.
‘The Saracens boys in the England team have got a lot of heat from the media over the past few weeks. They’ve experienced worse — we’re in the limelight and people want to see Saracens fall. They’re hurting and they’ll want to prove a point to all the people outside. They want to help Saracens get out of this. They won’t sulk or need anyone to tell them what to do. Once they walk through the doors at Saracens, they’ll know what to do.’
In a similar vein, Koch knows what he has to do to be part of Erasmus’s plans for this summer’s Lions series. He welcomed last week’s news that the games will be played in South Africa — and believes the showpiece can help lift the country out of its Covid rut as the world champions return to a pitch for the first time since 2019.
‘For a South African, you want to play the British and Irish Lions in South Africa,’ says Koch. ‘It’s where it’s meant to be. You want them to travel to you, to fly and prepare in a different country. We will be in our own comfort zone.
Scotland winger Sean Maitland (left) is also returning to club action and is named on the bench
Saracens lost their Championship opener against Cornish Pirates by 25-17 earlier this month
‘If the request for crowds is approved, it will be amazing. They are so hungry for it. Either way, we just want to make the country proud again.
‘It’s over 500 days since the Springboks played a game but, I can guarantee you, if you run on to that pitch against the British and Irish Lions, you will not have one Springbok who is not in great shape.
‘Once they put on the green jersey, they will be flying and firing on all cylinders. We can’t become world champions, then have a very average performance against the Lions.
‘Of course, the end goal is to get into that Springboks set-up, because there’s nothing better than that, but now my focus is to help Saracens get out the Champ. If Rassie and Jacques [Nienaber, the head coach] like what they see, that’s a bonus.’