To win the World Cup, Boks must embrace European quirks
In the coming seasons of European club rugby, mere qualification for the playoffs shouldn’t be the measure of success for the more ambitious teams.
As the curtain falls on South Africa’s debut campaign in Europe, it’s worth reflecting on how much the respective franchises have learnt from their overseas failures, and how they might fare if they’re forced to travel abroad for the United Rugby Championship (URC) playoffs.
History tells us that the odds are against a foreign team winning a big knockout game in Europe, but the entire South African community will be hoping that one or two franchises buck the trend in the coming months.
All things considered, South Africa’s teams have exceeded expectations in their first full northern hemisphere season. The Cheetahs were forced to play all their “home” fixtures in Italy, but still managed to progress to the Challenge Cup round of 16, whereas the Lions went one better by advancing to the quarterfinals of that tournament.
The Bulls fell at the first Champions Cup hurdle, and the Sharks and Stormers were well beaten in the quarterfinals against Toulouse and Exeter Chiefs, respectively. And yet, the fact that they qualified for the knockout stage at the first attempt was a statement regarding the strength – and indeed the potential – of South African rugby.
Home and away
In the coming seasons, however, mere qualification for the playoffs shouldn’t be the measure of success for the more ambitious teams. Though various logistical issues may continue to affect the respective franchises, the better ones will focus on banking log points at home and hatching plans for securing rare wins abroad.
South African teams have struggled to win consistently since the days of Super Rugby. Although the Boks have claimed major titles in the form of the 2019 World Cup and Lions series trophy, they have also battled to win regularly overseas – and the losses in Ireland and France last November don’t bode well for the coming World Cup staged in Europe.
The contrast between home and away performances in the URC and Champions Cup over the course of the 2022-23 season has been stark. Although individual teams have come in for heavy criticism over the past few months, all have done well at home, and have combined for a 92% winning record against foreign teams.
That number includes a perfect record against the much-vaunted English and French clubs in the Champions Cup, and a two-from-two return in home playoffs.
Overseas, however, the five South African franchises have combined for a record of 15 wins in 42 matches, for a win ratio of 36%. A closer reading of the season’s results reveals that the South African teams have secured only two wins and a draw over the course of 20 games staged in England, France and Ireland – where the best club teams are based.
Followers of European rugby will argue that home advantage has always been influential in these competitions – and the recent results in the Champions Cup round of 16 and quarterfinals certainly serve as a powerful statement.
Eleven of those 12 matches were won outright by the hosts, and Exeter’s draw with Montpellier at home was enough to earn them passage to the next round.
Dublin visit looms large
What chance do the South African teams have in Europe in the near future? The Bulls turned European rugby on its head when they travelled to Dublin and beat Leinster in the URC semifinals last year.
That incredible result will give travelling teams hope ahead of future playoffs staged at similarly tough venues, but it’s worth noting that no South African team has managed to win a major playoff in Europe since then.
The Bulls and Sharks have been inconsistent this season, but they may yet join the Stormers – who have already qualified – in the playoffs.
Depending on where they finish on the table, they may find themselves travelling to Scotland or Ireland for a quarterfinal.
Even if the Stormers win a quarterfinal and semifinal in Cape Town, they may find themselves travelling to Dublin for the decider. Though they secured a memorable away draw against Leinster during the league stage, they will know that the European powerhouse will be substantially harder to beat now that their Test stars have returned from Six Nations duty.
Champions Cup highlighted challenge in France
Further down the line, the Boks may find themselves in a similar situation when they go up against one of the northern hemisphere giants at the World Cup.
Four years ago, director of rugby Rassie Erasmus made the point that a global tournament staged in Japan was a great leveller because none of the traditional powerhouses had home advantage.
Although the hosts certainly channelled the passionate support of the locals to win all their pool matches, they fell to the Boks in the quarterfinals.
SA went on to win the Webb Ellis Cup.
Five months out from the next global tournament and hosts France have been tipped as favourites. The challenge of competing against one of the world’s strongest teams – France are currently ranked No 2 in the world – on their home patch shouldn’t be underestimated.
The clash between France and the Boks in Marseille last November highlighted the challenges of competing in France, as did the recent Champions Cup playoffs in Toulouse. The local players and coaches are world-class, but the atmosphere generated by the fans, and indeed those responsible for the television broadcast, serves to place the officials under significant pressure.
Fortunately, the Boks won’t be subjected to the same conditions as the franchises in the lead-up to the World Cup. They won’t have to worry about competing across two tournaments and crossing the equator on a near-weekly basis.
Once the Test season kicks off in July, they will look to build momentum in a truncated Rugby Championship. At the same time, Erasmus and head coach Jacques Nienaber should prepare their charges for the unique challenges of playing in a World Cup match in Europe – and possibly even a showdown with the hosts.
It’s going to take something special for a South African franchise to knock over Leinster in Dublin in the final stages of the URC. Beating France in a World Cup staged in France may prove even more challenging, but if the coaches and players take the recent lessons to heart, they may yet secure the victory that places them on course for a consecutive world title. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.