Sport

TOURNAMENT PREVIEW

European Champions Cup kicks off as SA Rugby set to finalise lucrative equity deal

European Champions Cup kicks off as SA Rugby set to finalise lucrative equity deal
La Rochelle's players celebrate with the trophy after winning the European Champions Cup final rugby union match against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on 20 May 2023. (Photo: Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)

The 2023/24 European Champions Cup kicks off this weekend just hours after a crucial SA Rugby general council meeting to consider at least two equity offers.

It has crept up almost unnoticed in South Africa, with the country still basking in the afterglow of the Rugby World Cup 2023 success and readjusting to weekends of United Rugby Championship (URC) fixtures.

But this weekend marks the start of the biggest and most prestigious club competition in the world, now that Super Rugby is essentially an extension of New Zealand’s domestic game.

The European Champions Cup, involving the elite from France’s Top 14, England’s Premiership and the URC, starts in Galway on Friday night and will end at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium in London in May 2024.

The competition kicks off with 24 clubs in six pools of four, including the Stormers and Bulls from South Africa, as two of the eight URC teams qualified for the tournament.

The secondary European Challenge Cup also starts this weekend, which includes the Sharks, Lions and Cheetahs from South Africa, as well as the Black Lion from Georgia. There are 18 teams in three groups of six. The four highest-ranked teams will qualify for the playoffs.

But the Champions Cup, like soccer’s Champions League, is where the focus will be.

Hacjivah Dayimani of the Stormers during the United Rugby Championship match between DHL Stormers and Zebre at Danie Craven Stadium on 2 December 2023 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

Equity decision

While this and the Cape Town leg of the World SVNS series take place, SA Rugby’s general council will be presented with more than one equity offer at a meeting on Friday.

It’s no secret that SA Rugby (Saru) has been in negotiations with CVC Capital to buy a stake in the organisation. But there will also be at least one other offer on the table tomorrow. Both are well north of a billion rand for a small slice of the commercial value of rugby in SA.

The deal is vital. 

South Africa’s entry into European competition always came at a cost and a risk, and, in the short-term, Saru has had to pay its way into the URC and the European Professional Club Rugby. 

Those costs, including travel and other related expenses for the Stormers, Bulls, Lions and Sharks, came to R330-million last season.

Details of the equity deals on the table are sketchy but sources say an announcement is imminent. It’s a vital step to the long-term sustainability of the game in this country.

On several occasions, Saru president Mark Alexander has highlighted why the sale of some equity is key.

“Private equity in our professional structures is extremely important and necessary,” Alexander said in his annual report to Saru’s general council earlier this year.

“It contributes in a significant way to our rugby ecosystem nationally. Therefore, we must all ensure that everyone benefits on an equitable basis from our growth as an organisation – and that we don’t kill the golden goose within our franchises in the process.

“It stands to reason that the more we succeed in international competitions, the more marketable we become and the more we will all benefit. We need to address ways to include the private equity structures in our decision-making processes to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table.”

Damian Willemse of the Stormers during the United Rugby Championship match between DHL Stormers and Zebre at Danie Craven Stadium on 2 December 2023 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

French dominance

Back on the field, French clubs have dominated the Champions Cup in recent years, with La Rochelle winning the last two editions and Toulouse the one before that.

Leinster from Ireland were on the losing side in both finals against La Rochelle, and it feels like the French clubs will start as favourites again.

The English club game is struggling against a backdrop of financial problems that have already seen three clubs fold in the past 15 months. Newcastle Falcons, currently winless this season, are also under financial stress.

Leinster and Munster, also from Ireland, are realistic contenders but even they will have to find a way to bury their French hoodoo while the Bulls and Stormers battle away from home.

Toulon, three times winners when they were staffed by the likes of Bakkies Botha and Bryan Habana, are dark horses this year. Paris club Racing 92, finalists three years ago – but never winners and now bolstered by the arrival of Siya Kolisi – are serious contenders too.

But it’s hard to look beyond Toulouse, La Rochelle and Leinster at this stage.

Leinster and La Rochelle meet on the opening weekend in a repeat of last season’s pulsating final in Dublin, which the French side won 27-26. It will set the tone and it marks Jacques Nienaber’s first vital involvement since joining Leinster after steering the Boks to the Rugby World Cup 2023 title.

The Bulls and the Stormers have practically been written off given the tougher travel schedule and their general struggles in cold and wet conditions.

But that view isn’t shared by South African players – especially those who missed the World Cup and now want to prove a point.

Prop Khutha Mchunu, formerly of the Sharks and now of the Bulls, was one of the players on media duty at the official Champions Cup launch this week. He made it clear the Bulls and South African teams in general were not in the tournament to make up numbers.

“This is our second season in the Champions Cup and it is still growing on us,” Mchunu told The Guardian.

“The first season we didn’t understand the history, the prestige, the aura, the legends who have played in this competition.

“It’s the best club competition in the world for a reason. We took some lessons from the previous season about what’s required to win. As South Africans, we always believe we can win any game, any weekend… that’s just how we’re brought up.

“But when you’re playing in the Champions Cup, you’re up against the best of the best.

“Look at Toulouse, who have (Antoine) Dupont and (Romain) Ntamack; at La Rochelle, they have (Will) Skelton and (Jonathan) Danty; and Leinster have, what, 18, 19, 20 internationals in the squad? I mean, how many premierships have Saracens won?”

“We started to understand all this, and we started to understand what’s required to win,” Mchunu said. 

“Now we are focused on becoming the first non‑European team to win the cup. We want to do that because it will be a huge part of history. Whoever gets there first will own that honour forever.”

La Rochelle’s players celebrate at the end of the European Champions Cup final rugby union match between Leinster and La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on 20 May 2023. La Rochelle beat Leinster 27-26 to retain Champions Cup. (Photo: Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)

How the Champions Cup works

  • The pool stage consists of four groups of six teams (two from each of the leagues). Last year’s league winner Saracens, Munster, Toulouse and the reigning Champions Cup holders La Rochelle are separated across the four groups.
  • The pool stage will feature four rounds. Each team will play four matches in total — two matches at home and two away — against the clubs in their group which do not play in the same league.
  • The top four teams in each pool will advance to the round of 16; the fifth place will drop into the Challenge Cup knockout stages.
  • Fixtures for the round of 16 will be determined by each club’s ranking. The clubs ranked from one to eight will have a home advantage. A similar ranking system will be used up to the final, and all knockout matches will be one game, not over two legs. DM
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