Stormers and Sharks lead the way into Europe, but it comes at a cost
The Stormers and Sharks have tough assignments in next week’s Champions Cup quarterfinals away to Exeter and Toulouse respectively.
South Africa’s rugby reputation was largely enhanced at the weekend as the Stormers and Sharks both advanced to the Champions Cup quarterfinals while the Lions moved into the last eight of the secondary Challenge Cup.
The Stormers beat Harlequins 32-28 at the DHL Stadium and the Sharks cruised to a 50-35 win over Munster at King’s Park. The Bulls slumped to a limp 33-9 loss against Toulouse in Toulouse, which extended the Pretoria side’s bleak record to 10 straight losses in all competitions.
The Lions meanwhile, continued their recent good form with an excellent 51-28 Challenge Cup win over Racing 92 despite an 18th-minute red card for loose forward Emmanuel Tshituka.
While the good results are welcome, there is a cost to those wins in terms of the Stormers, Sharks and Lions balancing a tough schedule, and also financially for the South African Rugby Union (Saru).
The Champions and Challenge Cups, Europe’s elite club competitions that now include South African teams, do not cover the travel costs for competing teams.
Over the next week, Saru will have to pick up the bill for flying about 100 people in the three teams to Europe as the Stormers must play at Sandy Park against Exeter, the Sharks in France against Toulouse and the Lions in Glasgow against the Warriors.
With possible bills for extra hotel days, Saru could face an extra R3-million in expenses.
Furthermore, the three teams have crunch United Rugby Championship (URC) games back in South Africa the week after the European competitions’ quarterfinals.
The Stormers host Munster, the Sharks take on Benetton and the Lions will welcome Leinster. That could require juggling the playing squads with an eye on the “domestic” competition.
“It will be tough. If we play on Sunday in Exeter, we will be under pressure to get back for Munster [in the URC],” Stormers coach John Dobson said after his side beat Harlequins 32-28 in the Champions Cup last 16. At that stage he didn’t know where the quarterfinal would take place but as it turns out, they will play on Saturday.
The date and venues depended on the outcome of the round of 16 clash between Exeter and Montpellier at Sandy Park. The match ended in a dramatic 33-33 draw after extra time, but the English club advanced due to scoring more tries. That in turn means a trip to England for the Stormers this week.
“The Champions Cup is prestigious. It is the tournament,” Dobson said. “We will just have to get through it. If we tweak the team, it will be for the Munster game, and back some of the URC regulars to get us a home win.”
Sharks injury concerns
The Stormers are not guaranteed a home URC play-off berth yet, with two rounds to play, which make the Munster game in two weeks crucial.
The Sharks produced some sparkling rugby in beating Munster 50-35 in their Champions Cup last 16 match, but they have not cemented a URC play-off berth yet. They occupy eighth in the standings.
Despite their impressive display against Munster at King’s Park, the Sharks are likely to travel to Toulouse without locks Eben Etzebeth and Emile van Heerden and scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse.
The trio all suffered shoulder injuries in the match, with Hendrikse appearing to be the most serious.
“We’ll assess the injuries with the medical team and get clarity,” director of rugby Neil Powell said following the Munster win.
“Emile van Heerden also picked up a shoulder injury, which put us in a difficult spot having two locks injured. We’ll assess them and see if they recover in time for next weekend’s game. If not, then it’s an opportunity for another guy to come in. We hope they’re okay because they’re big players in the team, but that’s why you have a squad.”
The Sharks were impressive on attack and took a big step up in terms of performance after a toothless display against the Scarlets in a URC match a week earlier.
The Sharks scored seven tries, and although they conceded five, Munster scored three tries when the contest was all but over, with the Sharks leading 43-14 after an hour.
“From an attacking point of view, it was a great performance, but we do set high standards for ourselves, so from a defensive point of view, conceding as many tries as we did was disappointing,” Powell said.
“We will have to fix it if we want to go further in this competition.
“After a long break without having the Boks, it was important for us to get that synergy and cohesion in the squad. We knew last weekend that we didn’t have that, but I think we took a step in the right direction in this game.
“It’s important when you get into the knockout stages to get that momentum, so hopefully we can keep it going into the quarter-finals.”
Similarly, the Stormers led 32-7 after 76 minutes in the match against Harlequins with a dominant performance spearheaded by indefatigable flank Deon Fourie. The veteran scored two tries and made several breakdown turnovers.
Harlequins somehow scored three tries in the final minutes of the match to give the scoreline a respectable tone, but in truth, the English club were played off the park for most of the match.
“We were very good, absolutely superb,” Dobson said after the match. “Everything went according to our plan. A lot of people will talk about the last six minutes, but this Harlequins team has come back and beaten Bristol from 30 points down. They have beaten a lot of teams like that. The game was well won by then.” DM