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Do South Africa’s rugby teams have what it takes?



European Champions Cup: South African teams have work to do if they want to climb the ladder

Vincent Tshituka of the Lions scores a try during the United Rugby Championship 2021/22 game between the Stormers and the Lions at Cape Town Stadium on 4 December 2021. (Photo: Ryan Wilkisky / BackpagePix)

Although South Africa’s top rugby teams are still finding their feet in the United Rugby Championship, they are also eyeing a place in the prestigious European Champions Cup. But do they have what it takes?

The 2021-22 edition of the European Champions Cup commenced with Northampton Saints hosting Racing 92 on Friday, 10 December. The northern hemisphere tournament is widely recognised as the premier club competition in world rugby, and features many of South Africa’s finest exports.

From next September, however, South Africa will have one – and possibly two – teams competing in this elite tournament. It remains to be seen which of the Bulls, Lions, Sharks or Stormers will take the leap, and whether that qualifying team will have what it takes to challenge some of the biggest clubs from England and France.

So, what do we know for sure? The winners of the SA pool in the inaugural United Rugby Championship (URC) will advance to the 2022-23 instalment of the Champions Cup. A second South African team may qualify for the Champions Cup if they finish among the top-ranked teams in the URC.

Given what we’ve witnessed over the past few months, though, the smart money is on only one South African team graduating to the Champions Cup in the short term.

Propping up the URC log

The four local franchises have failed to impress since joining the northern hemisphere fraternity, and it may be some time yet before they find their feet in the URC tournament. Although that competition is only seven rounds old, and will only conclude next June, these misfiring teams have yet to make a statement with regard to their playoff credentials. The current 16-team log tells a story. The Lions are ranked 11th, the Sharks 12th, the Stormers 14th and the Bulls 15th. These sides are yet to live up to expectations, both north and south of the equator.

The rise of the new Covid-19 variant has certainly compromised the URC. Cardiff, Munster, Scarlets and Zebre were forced to cancel their two fixtures in South Africa recently after the respective European governments imposed a travel ban.

The players were forced to quarantine on their return to Europe, and subsequent fixtures were adversely affected.

Scarlets forfeited their opening Champions Cup game against Bristol Bears due to a lack of personnel.

The tentative plan is that Cardiff, Munster, Scarlets and Zebre will play those two URC matches in South Africa at a later date, which has yet to be determined.

Lack of game time for SA players

The South African teams managed to organise a round of derby matches last week, with the Sharks thumping the Bulls 30-16 in Durban and the Lions claiming a 37-19 bonus-point win against the Stormers in Cape Town. But the fact remains, these players have enjoyed little rugby of late.

Across September and October, all four franchises participated in a challenging four-game tour of the northern hemisphere. They returned to SA for what was supposed to be a five-week break before two intense rounds against European opposition.

The discovery of the Omicron variant forced a change in plan. Matches against Cardiff, Munster, Scarlets and Zebre were postponed, and the touring clubs scrambled to leave the country.

The upshot is that the local teams will have to wait another four weeks until their next opportunity in the URC – a single round of away matches in Europe.

It will take some time for the players to regain their match fitness once the competition resumes in the first week of January.

That said, the impromptu round of derbies played last week did provide some surprises, and the Lions will go into the break as the happiest of the franchises.

Lions in pole position

Few would have predicted that the Lions would be leading the SA pool at this stage – or indeed any stage – of the tournament. Ivan van Rooyen’s side failed to qualify for the Currie Cup playoffs, and went into the URC with a largely inexperienced squad.

The Lions began their tour to Europe positively, scoring a 36-28 bonus-point victory over Zebre in Parma. Although their inexperience was exposed during the initial rounds of the tournament, they produced some inspired moments on attack.

The Lions have claimed two bonus-point victories in five starts – which is two more than any other South African side. They should be especially pleased by the fact that they achieved those big wins away from home. Their defence has let them down, though, as the stat of 16 tries conceded confirms. No South African team has conceded more tries in this tournament.

No doubt Leinster and other big teams will target the Lions in this area when they meet the Johannesburg-based franchise in the new year. 

Sharks claim key Bulls scalp

The Sharks have lost two Currie Cup finals to the Bulls over the past 12 months. Last week, however, they landed a psychological blow on their rivals via an emphatic win in Durban. It’s a massive result in the context of the race for top spot in the South African pool.

The Lions have surprised a lot of people in the early rounds, but the key question is how they will fare as the season progresses and after more key players are sidelined by fatigue and injuries.

The Bulls and Sharks boast more strength and depth. They may improve as the tournament wears on, particularly in the period over February and March, which has been set aside for South African derbies.

The Bulls were touted as South Africa’s strongest team at the start of the URC, after dominating the preceding domestic tournaments. And yet their URC record after five games – four losses and one win – confirms that they have plenty to rectify if they hope to be a force at this level.

The margins of defeat have come as a surprise, as have the lapses on defence. The biggest concern at present is their attack, which has produced five tries in five games.

Those numbers show why they’re rooted to the bottom of the South African pool, and just one place above Zebre in the overall URC standings. The Bulls will have the opportunity to bounce back, and build some momentum, when they play the Italian club in the new year. 

Big loss highlights Stormers’ plight

The Stormers’ downward spiral continues. Like the Lions, they endured a disappointing Currie Cup campaign. They weren’t expected to challenge the better teams in the URC.

Although they picked up a couple of positive results on their tour of the northern hemisphere, they produced a poor display in their first home game of the season against the Lions.

The Stormers franchise has had its problems off the field over the past few years, and this has affected the team and the performances. The most recent result – a 19-point defeat at home to one of the weakest teams in the tournament – puts their plight into perspective.

It won’t get any easier for the Stormers when they travel to Galway to face Connacht in extremely challenging winter conditions next month. Although they will play their following two games at home, they will be hard-pressed to beat the likes of the Bulls and Sharks, who may be looking to replicate the Lions’ bonus-point feats at the Cape Town Stadium.

The South African teams have work to do if they’re going to climb the URC ladder and put themselves into a position to qualify for the quarterfinals, and, ultimately, a place in the next Champions Cup.

At this stage, it seems likely that only one South African team – namely the winner of the local pool – will have a seat at that table in 2022-23. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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