SA team’s European adventures end with a whimper and stiff bodies from cramped flights
South Africa’s first foray into European Cup and Challenge competition is over and the travel schedule will need addressing in future.
In the end, South Africa’s first European Champions and Challenge Cup adventures ended with a whimper in the quarterfinals. It was all so underwhelming as the nature of the tournament and the travel issues suggested that better planning will be needed if they are to be competitive.
The Stormers were overwhelmed 42-17 at Sandy Park in Exeter, against Exeter while the Sharks were run ragged by a brilliant Toulouse in the final quarter for their clash at Stade Ernest Wallon to lose 54-20.
The Lions meanwhile didn’t have the firepower to overcome Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun and went down 31-21. All the South African sides endured travel issues with economy flights via the Middle East, which disrupted preparations.
It’s not as bad as it was in Super Rugby considering the time zones and jet lag that hurt teams in those competitions, but it did underline that winning away from home without optimum preparation, against high quality opposition, will be almost impossible.
At least in Super Rugby days the players flew business class, but in these austere post-Covid days, budgets are nearly as tight as squeezing hulking rugby players into economy class seats. They are uncomfortable for regular-sized humans.
Of course, the shambolic travel was a factor in the SA team’s losses, but it would be disingenuous to lay the full blame on the journey north. Toulouse and Exeter in particular were sensational.
Stormers coach John Dobson would not publicly blame the travel schedule but it was clear that it was not ideal for such crucial matches in Europe’s top competition.
“We flew in three or four different parties and got here late on Wednesday. The last guys arrived Wednesday evening,” said Dobson.
“But Exeter was so sublime. Talking to people here, they say it was like Exeter when they were European champions.
“I can’t blame that on the travel. It looked like [we were tired], especially on defence at the start from the coaching box and we weren’t chasing kicks.
“But we want to be here in this tournament, in these quarterfinals and if it means we have to fly to Europe, then we’ve got to do it.”
The Stormers coach preferred to focus on their own shortcomings, especially with an important United Rugby Championship match against Münster in Cape Town to come this weekend. The Stormers need nine points from their remaining two fixtures to secure home play-off advantage.
“The thing that worried me a little bit in that opening 20 minutes [against Exeter] was that we weren’t folding like we should have on defence. We looked flat,” Dobson said.
“I thought we dealt with the circumstances or the cards we were dealt travel-wise as best we could. I thought we did everything we could to get energised.
“But in two of the last three weeks, we’ve kicked poorly in windy conditions and that’s something we have to get right. That will have more influence on the outcome than the travel.”
For nearly an hour the Sharks went toe-to-toe with Toulouse and looked to have taken the lead on the hour mark, when scrumhalf Grant Williams finished an incisive move. He thought he’d scored his second try but a forward pass was ruled in the build-up.
French TV replays only showed one angle, and referee Karl Dickson decided it was enough to overrule.
“The turning point was Grant Williams’ second try (61st minute), which was not awarded due to a forward pass by him to Thomas du Toit. If we could have scored there, it would have created renewed momentum that we could have carried through,” Sharks coach Neil Powell said after the match.
“Nevertheless, the guys put everything in, and showed tremendous fighting spirit. They played their hearts out.”
Toulouse scored four tries in the final 10 minutes when they were chasing the game. Had Williams’ try stood, it might have changed their approach
“It was particularly disappointing as we had been extremely competitive for so long and with barely 20 minutes to go we still had a chance to win,” Powell said.
“When you play in the knockout rounds of a competition like the Champions Cup against an excellent team like Toulouse, who know what it takes to be successful, you have to be more clinical and try to limit mistakes.” DM