Champions Cup playoffs will reveal where South Africa’s teams stand
If the URC is on par with the English Premiership or French Top 14, it follows that the Champions Cup will demand a step up in intensity.
Last season, four-time Champions Cup winners Leinster were criticised for sending a second-string side to South Africa for United Rugby Championship (URC) fixtures against the Sharks and Stormers.
The decision to wrap Johnny Sexton and other Test players in cotton wool ahead of the Champions Cup playoffs was questioned, and some Irish commentators called it an insult to the Leinster jersey and to the URC, which also positions itself as a top club tournament.
Leinster scored a minor victory, though, when the understrength side claimed two losing bonus points on tour – a tally that allowed them to top the URC table and secure home advantage for future playoffs. That Sexton and company enjoyed a further two weeks to prepare for the Champions Cup playoffs was viewed as another big plus.
Following Leinster’s lead
After the defeat by the Stormers in Cape Town, Leinster coach Leo Cullen spoke about managing player resources across two elite tournaments such as the URC and Champions Cup.
While Cullen congratulated the South African franchises on their successes and on improving the overall quality of the URC – which was previously known as the Pro14 – he warned that they too would face a monumental juggling act in the season to come.
And here we are, 11 months down the line, assessing where the SA teams stand in both tournaments and whether they have what it takes to perform at the next level.
Other factors have influenced results – such as the withdrawal of the Springboks on account of rest and conditioning protocols, as well as the excessive travel schedule to Europe via the Middle East – but competing in two big tournaments concurrently has placed a strain on resources as never before.
By the end of the first round of Champions Cup matches, we will have a clearer idea of who has risen to the challenge, and who is still coming to grips with the unique situation.
What’s more, these matches will be played at a far higher standard. If the URC is on par with the English Premiership or French Top 14, it follows that the Champions Cup will demand a step up in physicality and intensity. The recent pool matches confirmed as much, and while there were some encouraging performances, many hard lessons were learnt – particularly away
Stormers still lead SA pack
It would be a stretch to compare the Stormers to Leinster, but it appears coach John Dobson has taken Cullen’s message to heart, and has tried to manage his player group with the overall season in mind.
From the outset, Dobson showed the intention of rotating his team and developing his wider squad.
Despite winning the URC in 2022, the Stormers have pushed on this season, and that consistency in performance and results has earned them the South African Shield and strengthened their chances of hosting a URC semifinal and the final.
They got a reality check when they went down to Clermont in France in the early rounds of the Champions Cup. Since then, they have continued to build, and will be favourites when they host Harlequins in Cape Town for the round-of-16 playoff on
1 April. Harlequins will be boosted by the return of several England stars, and the likes of Marcus Smith will be desperate to prove a point after England’s poor Six Nations campaign.
Bok centre André Esterhuizen will also be keen to make an impression as the race for World Cup squad spots intensifies.
The Stormers coaches have done all they can to prepare for this stage of the season. It remains to be seen if the logistical challenges of competing in two hemispheres – almost weekly – will scupper their prospects.
The Boks returning from their mandated period of rest were backed to feature for the Stormers against Leinster in Dublin. Dobson believes that one of the toughest fixtures in club rugby will serve as ideal preparation for a Champions Cup playoff showdown with Harlequins.
And yet one hopes that the travel between Ireland and South Africa in the wake of such a physically demanding match doesn’t deplete energy levels further.
Sharks favourites at home, Bulls underdogs in France
South Africa’s other contenders have been less consistent over the course of the season and are not as well placed to succeed in the coming weeks.
Though the Sharks’ form has fluctuated in the URC, they have looked more threatening when all of their Boks have been available during the pool phase of the Champions Cup.
The big guns will be deployed for the playoff against Munster on 1 April, but as Dobson and other coaches have mentioned, these players have not played competitive rugby for eight weeks and may take some time to regain match fitness.
It could be said that the Bulls have only themselves to blame for their current position. Thanks to an underwhelming series of performances in the pool phase of the competition, they will travel to Toulouse for a Champions Cup playoff on 2 April. Given their record away from home, an early exit from the tournament seems likely.
Toulouse will be bolstered by Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and other prominent Test players.
While Dupont and company won’t be hurting quite as much as their English counterparts after the Six Nations, they may regret surrendering the title to Ireland, and may be highly motivated to chase silverware in the European club competition. It wasn’t too long ago that Toulouse lifted the Champions Cup trophy in 2021.
The odds are against a South African team going all the way to win the Champions Cup, given the logistical challenges they will face over the next few weeks.
That said, what the first round of the playoffs will reveal is how much they have learnt in their debut season, and how much more they will need to do to match the likes of Leinster and Toulouse on that elite club stage. DM168