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RUGBY

With poor URC start, here are the reasons SA teams need to worry about Champions Cup

With poor URC start, here are the reasons SA teams need to worry about Champions Cup
Damian Willemse and Manie Libbok of the Stormers before their United Rugby Championship match against the Glasgow Warriors at Cape Town Stadium on 22 April 2022. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

The teams face an uphill battle in the Champions Cup after a slow start to the United Rugby Championship and a Rugby World Cup hangover.

The Bulls look to be South Africa’s best bet for silverware in what is shaping up to be the most demanding club season yet.

But there is no guarantee that Jake White’s charges will replicate their early United Rugby Championship (URC) form in the prestigious Champions Cup tournament, which begins on 8 December.

And yet, given their excellent recruitment in the off-season, as well as their four-wins-from-six record in the initial rounds of the URC, they are better placed than their local counterparts to progress to the playoffs of both competitions.

Overseas form

Collectively, the South African franchises have had a poor start to the URC. The trend of dominating at home and losing in Europe that was so prevalent in past years has persisted, and most teams have reason to be concerned as the 2023-24 edition reaches a key stage.

Over the past six weeks, South Africa’s teams have won five out of six matches at home. Connacht – who beat the battling Sharks in Durban – are the only overseas side to win in the Republic.

During the same period, South Africa’s teams combined for 13 losses in 16 matches overseas.

URC

Springboks stars Manie Libbok (left) and Damian Willemse will be key figures for the Stormers in the coming weeks and months when they return to action. (Photo: Getty Images)

The challenge couldn’t be greater, given the congestion of the schedule. We’re coming to the end of a seven-game stretch in the URC, and there will be no respite when the respective teams compete in the Champions Cup or Challenge Cup over the next two weekends. Thereafter, the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers will switch back to the URC for two consecutive weeks.

The Boks were granted a three-week break after their successful World Cup campaign in France, but the South African contingent will only enjoy its first official bye of the season in the first week of January.

Player management is going to be essential over December, as the respective coaches try to mitigate fatigue as well as the challenge of travelling to and from Europe.

More poor results, however, could force the coaches to field their best players more often, as they try to turn things around.

Making home advantage count

White has highlighted the importance of rotating his Bulls squad over the 10-month season. They’ve claimed several important wins during the early stages of the URC, and may have more freedom to experiment as that campaign unfolds.

In terms of the Champions Cup, however, the Bulls should view the first fixture against Saracens as a massive opportunity.

Saracens were relegated to the second tier of the English club pyramid in 2020 for their part in a salary-cap scandal. After regaining entry to the Premiership in 2021, they featured in the final, and won the title in 2023.

Read more in Daily Maverick: URC went from an interesting experiment in 2022 to a world-class competition in 2023

Saracens are serial winners for sure, but can they do it on a hot summer night at Loftus Versfeld, which is 1,350m above sea level? The altitude has compromised most touring teams over the past three URC seasons.

The Bulls should be aiming to maximise the advantage of playing in such conditions. If they beat Saracens in Pretoria, they will be under less pressure to secure a win in Lyon the following week.

The Stormers will begin their Champions Cup campaign on the road against Leicester – who boast World Cup winners Handré Pollard and Jasper Wiese among their ranks. The Tigers won the Premiership in 2022. Since Pollard’s return from the World Cup, they have started to climb the Premiership ladder.

Stormers coach John Dobson. (Photo: Getty Images)

Stormers coach John Dobson faces some tough decisions. He may be tempted to field his best-possible combination – now that Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse and other Boks are back – on successive weekends.

It would be a big ask, however, for the Stormers to beat Leicester at Welford Road and then La Rochelle in Cape Town the following week. Focusing on the latter game may be the wiser course of action.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Bevy of Boks on display at Loftus as SA teams return to full strength

Although stars such as Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule have previously represented the Stormers and know the conditions well, the French club is yet to play a match in this part of the world, and may need time to adapt at Cape Town Stadium on 16 December.

Turning point for Sharks

The Sharks finished eighth in the URC last season and failed to qualify for the 2023-24 Champions Cup. They will join the Cheetahs and Lions in the Challenge Cup.

The return of Eben Etzebeth, Makazole Mapimpi and a clutch of Boks lifted the Sharks to a 69-14 win over the Dragons in the sixth round of the URC. That result at Kings Park snapped a five-game losing streak for the Durban-based franchise.

John Plumtree’s side will host Pau in the first round of the Challenge Cup. The French club has enjoyed a fantastic start to the domestic season, and is currently second in the Top 14. But again, they may lack the experience and conditioning to cope with the demands of playing in the Durban heat.

The Sharks will face the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in their second European fixture. It’s a game they should expect to win.

Bulls coach Jake White. (Photo: Getty Images)

If the Sharks bank two early wins in the Challenge Cup, they will strengthen their chances of hosting a playoff. If they push on to win the second-tier tournament, they will gain automatic promotion to next season’s Champions Cup.

The Cheetahs were competitive in last year’s Challenge Cup, where they progressed to the playoffs and lost to eventual champions Toulon. Since then, they have won the Currie Cup, and beaten the Western Force from Australia in a four-match series.

The central franchise should not under­estimate Zebre, who shocked the Sharks in Parma recently.

The Sharks will be tougher to topple now that their Boks are back, though.

The Lions have played with ambition, but their results in the URC have left a lot to be desired. They face a tricky trip to Perpignan in the south of France, before returning for a must-win game against Newcastle.

If the Lions bank a bonus-point win in that home fixture, they will boost their chances of advancing to the Challenge Cup playoffs for the second season running. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

Page 1. Front page DM168. 02 December 2023

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