Ben Loader interview: English winger on life in Cape Town after joining Stormers

Ben Loader – Ben Loader interview:  I've not given up on playing for England – I'll return a better player
Ben Loader is the only Englishman to play for one of the four South African teams in the United Rugby Championship - Getty Images/David Fitzgerald

A bit of advice; do not go on Ben Loader’s Instagram page. All you will find are photos bathed in sunshine of Loader either training with the Stormers or exploring the many wonderful things the Western Cape has to offer.

Hearing Loader discuss taking the wine tram in Franschhoek around the vineyards and being able to see Table Mountain from his apartment in Cape Town makes you green with envy, although that feeling dissipates when Loader talks about training in 41-degree heat in Paarl.

Loader never expected to be here. He signed a three-year contract extension with London Irish last January, continuing a partnership that began when he joined the club’s academy at the age of 15.

During the pandemic Loader, Ollie Hassell-Collins and Tom Parton joined a virtual interview with Telegraph Sport. The club’s highly-promising back-three excitedly discussed their hopes for London Irish’s future after moving to Brentford and how, in the past, a stream of young England talent coming out of the club’s academy at Hazelwood including Anthony Watson and Joe Cokanasiga had felt they needed to move on to further their careers. The young trio wanted to stop that.

By the time London Irish were liquidated last year Hassell-Collins and Parton had already signed to move to Leicester and Saracens, respectively, but the club already had a fresh wave of bright players coming through – Henry Arundell, Tom Pearson, Chandler Cunningham-South, Will Joseph and many more – all hungry to crack the top four and make the club a force again, with Loader enjoying one of his best seasons. And then it was all gone.

Ben Loader (L) Ollie Hassell-Collins (C) Henry Arundell (R) – Ben Loader interview:  I've not given up on playing for England – I'll return a better player

“It was a hugely sad time,” Loader admits. “That interview all that time ago, I remember us saying that we wanted to make Irish into a club that can compete and hold onto its youngsters, and by the time [it collapsed] we were seeing that. We had such a good crop of guys who are now tearing up trees all over the Premiership. So there is a lot of sadness, but, seeing everyone do well . .  . although we’re all at different clubs now, there is a part of us which will always be connected to each other through Irish.”

The club’s collapse presented Loader, 25, with an extraordinary opportunity. He had options to stay in England and was linked to both Saracens and Bristol Bears, noting that “it really went down to the wire” and with England on his mind after a strong season. But a text from Rito Hlungwani, the Stormers forwards coach, piqued Loader’s interest.

“This was never on my radar at all coming out here, or going overseas at all particularly. My thought was to stay in England. I had just signed a three-year deal with Irish, my mindset was to be there. And then I had a message from one of the coaches here and I thought someone was having me on. It’s not a path that many players do, going from England to South Africa,” Loader explains.

Ben Loader – Ben Loader interview:  I've not given up on playing for England – I'll return a better player
Loader was part of the next generation of England wonderkids at London Irish before the club collapsed - Getty Images/Alex Davidson

“After a few chats with the coaches here and some long, hard conversations about what it might look like, I just thought this kind of opportunity to come to a championship-winning team in a completely different country, playing against completely different teams and opposition, was something I couldn’t really pass up. I thought, why not go for this new challenge?”

Loader has been a hit on the field, nailing down a place in the Stormers side with three tries in his last four starts, while building friendships off it with the likes of Damian Willemse, the South Africa full-back. Both his aerial game and defence  – having to adapt to the Stormers’ aggressive blitz, “at first it feels crazy how hard and fast you have to get off your line” – have improved, while learning how to look out for any no-look cross-field kicks from the Springbok No 10 Manie Libbok.

Major adjustments have included the travel that comes with playing in the United Rugby Championship, heading off on five-week tours with flights across the world instead of travelling the day before a Premiership match, along with the challenge of facing multiple internationals and playing styles from different countries each week.

‘I’m learning a lot about the culture and the people’

Loader is the only foreign player in the Stormers squad and the only English player attached to any of the South African franchises, trying his best to keep up with the parts of defensive meetings that slip into Afrikaans. For all the extensive and warm help from coaches and team-mates, to make a move like this a success you have to dive in headfirst. Loader has done so without hesitation, taking inspiration from his brother, Danny, a striker for FC Porto.

“He’s obviously my younger brother but he is so mature in so many ways; the dedication, the patience. You are bound to deal with frustrations anywhere you are, but having to do it away from your family is certainly tough. Seeing the way he has dealt with it definitely helps me and gave me the confidence to come over here.

“I’m learning a lot about the culture and the people. Our mission here is to make Cape Town smile, embracing the love that the city has for us and trying to give back. I really feel part of something here.”

It is worth hearing the Stormers’ side of how Loader was recruited. The franchise, as head coach John Dobson admits, just do not sign overseas players, as the Sharks in Durban used to with Thierry Lacroix, Frederic Michalak and Andy Goode among others. “We never go abroad. We just haven’t got the money or the exchange rate, plus there is so much local talent,” Dobson explains, with Jamie Roberts a rare exception before his time was cut short due to the pandemic.

When wing Seabelo Senatla was involved in a nasty car accident the Stormers needed a replacement. They had faced London Irish twice in last season’s Champions Cup and seen Loader up close. “He was really good. Well, in one game he got a red card,” adds Dobson.

The Stormers noted that Loader could cover the back-three, had a good kicking game and footwork. Most of all he was tough, breaking tackles. “Real x-factor,” as Dobson puts it. “The game in Cape Town he almost brought them back from the dead to win it. Our wings at the Stormers have to be strikers, we don’t have the multi-phase team – we want real x-factor in the back-three.”

As London Irish neared the end the Stormers made their move. “We knew all the focus would be on other guys like Arundell, whereas we thought the best guy out of the lot of them was Loader,” reveals Dobson. When there was still faint hope that Irish might survive, Loader asked the Stormers to wait. Then, when Irish were liquidated, Loader asked the Stormers to stall again.

“He said; ‘I don’t want to be the first guy to leave the ship. I want to make sure most of my team-mates are OK before I commit’. I thought that was pure class. We were offering him a straight gig in Cape Town on a reasonable salary, and he stalled on us just to give London Irish every chance, to check most of the squad were OK. That’s what really sold him to us,” explains Dobson.

“I could be wrong here, but I think he was very traumatised with what happened to London Irish. With us he is completely invested in the squad, the group. I presume he was the same there. But it’s not an easy thing to come to Cape Town. He saw the bigger picture. Our big change at the Stormers in the last couple of years is that we are playing for the people of Cape Town, and he completely gets that. He gets that we’re a poor region, that people are making sacrifices to come and watch our games. He has exceeded all our expectations, but mostly as a person.”

‘I still have the ambition to play for England’

It should be stressed Loader has not given up on playing for England, far from it. His deal with the Stormers runs for two seasons and a return to the Premiership seems certain at some stage. Loader explains: “I still have the ambition to play for England one day. Coming here was not me closing the door on that opportunity. If anything it was to further myself, my game, and test myself against the best players and teams in the world. Whenever I come back, I’ll be coming back a better player.”

There is no chance that Loader ends up playing for South Africa. Yet Dobson makes an interesting point about Loader’s credentials and ability to play at the top of the game.

“If he wants to stay here and plays like he is for a few years, he would be good enough to be in the Springbok alignment camps. He is not going to play for South Africa, his heart is in England, but that’s the level we think he is at. If you are a starting wing regularly for the Stormers, you would be involved in some form of Springbok mix at some stage. Ben is definitely capable of playing Test rugby.”

Loader winning an England cap would be some story. Seeing him immerse himself into a move which few would choose to make, into an experience which “is not only making me a better rugby player but also a better person”, as he puts it, is rather heartwarming. A welcome sign that something good has come out of London Irish’s desperate demise.

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