SA teams face moment of truth in Europe as Champions and Challenge Cups knockouts start

SA teams face moment of truth in Europe as Champions and Challenge Cups knockouts start
Stormers looseforward Hacjivah Dayimani on a surge during the Champions Cup match against Sale Sharks at Cape Town Stadium on 13 January 2023. (Photo: Grant Pitcher / Gallo Images)

There are the 16 clubs left in the Investec Champions Cup and now the pretenders will be separated from the contenders.

Opportunity knocks for South Africa’s five franchises, who will compete in the European club playoffs over the next two weeks. By the end of the quarterfinal round we will have some answers regarding the quality of the local clubs, and perhaps some history will be made, with one or more South African teams advancing to the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup semifinals for the very first time.

South Africa’s short history in Europe shows why this is easier said than done.

Period of transition

South African rugby made a statement when the Bulls and Stormers contested the inaugural United Rugby Championship (URC) final in 2022. While the first season in Europe was hailed as a resounding success, many experts forecasted a period of transition as the franchises added Champions Cup and Challenge Cup fixtures to their schedules, and ultimately more player management and logistical challenges.

All five South African teams qualified for the European playoffs, and this was hailed as something of an achievement. But as the round of 16 and quarterfinals played out, all five fell by the wayside.

Toulouse thrashed the Bulls 33-9 in the round-of-16 match in France. The Sharks and Stormers won their respective playoffs in South Africa, but were humbled after travelling to Europe for the quarterfinals. The Cheetahs and Lions progressed to the Challenge Cup quarterfinals, but no further.

In the aftermath, the coaches bemoaned the players’ lack of experience in European conditions, as well as the travel between South Africa and the northern hemisphere.

The Bulls and Sharks proceeded to stack their squads, and overall the franchises set out to manage their resources over a 10-month season with the aim of peaking in the big matches.

European expectations remain tempered

Twelve months on, however, and it’s fair to say that expectations remain tempered. It would come as a surprise to see more than one South African franchise in the Champions Cup semifinals.

The season may culminate with a South African team – the top-seeded Sharks – winning the Challenge Cup. It would be a stretch to consider that as a sign of progress, since the Durban-based side was relegated to the second-tier tournament at the end of the 2023 URC.

SA teams in Europe Champions Cup

Romain Buros of Bordeaux-Begles misses a tackle, allowing Devon Williams of the Bulls to score during their Champions Cup clash at Loftus Versfeld on 20 January. (Photo: Gordon Arons / Gallo Images)

While the Bulls haven’t won anything yet, they have grown over the course of the season in terms of their style and depth and are well placed to advance to the latter stages of the URC and Champions Cup.

They did suffer a heavy 47-14 URC loss to Leinster in Ireland last week, but director of rugby Jake White believes it’s all part of a learning process for his team.

“(During Super Rugby) The Chiefs came here (to Pretoria) years ago and lost in the final by about 60 points. You know who dominated Super Rugby after that the next few seasons – the Chiefs. They dominated because they were exposed to what it’s like to be under the pump,” White said this week.

In the Champions Cup Pool stages Lyon edged a young Bulls side 29-28 in France earlier this season. The outcome may be different after these teams meet in the first round of the playoffs. The Bulls will be back to full strength and will enjoy the advantage of playing such a big game on the Highveld.

White has spoken about the challenges of playing in South Africa one week and then travelling to Europe the next. If the Bulls beat Lyon, they may well end up tackling the Northampton Saints in England in the quarterfinals.

But if Munster knock over the Saints, then the Bulls may have the benefit of playing a quarterfinal at Loftus Versfeld. Nobody will underestimate an Irish team that lifted the 2023 URC title after winning the final in Cape Town. At the same time, few will bet against the Bulls in a playoff staged on the Highveld.

A pensive Bulls head coach Jake White before the United Rugby Championship match against Leinster in Dublin on 29 March. (Photo: Harry Murphy / Gallo Images)

Hoping for a favour

Like the Bulls, the Stormers will hope that one or two other results go their way. Leinster will be favourites when they host Leicester in Dublin in the first round of the playoffs, but if the Tigers surprise Jacques Nienaber’s side, they could end up travelling to Cape Town for a quarterfinal.

Not that the Stormers should be getting ahead of themselves.

They boast a proud record at Cape Town Stadium, and have only ever lost twice since moving to the venue in 2021 (to Munster on both occasions). Whether they can maintain that record after hosting La Rochelle remains to be seen.

The Stormers edged the defending champions 21-20 in a pool clash in Cape Town last December. More recently, the Cape side has produced a series of inconsistent performances in the URC. They may be hard pressed to match the French giants in a do-or-die clash.

The road to the Investec Champions Cup final explained. (Graphic: Supplied by EPCR)

Sharks set sights on qualification

The Sharks have accepted that they won’t finish in the top half of the URC table, and have turned their attention to the Challenge Cup. The winner of this tournament will automatically qualify for the next instalment of the Champions Cup.

The Springbok-laden side should be too strong for Zebre in the first round of the playoffs. If they come through that fixture, they will – as the top-seeded side – remain in Durban for the quarterfinals, where they will meet Edinburgh or Bayonne. The Scottish side boasts several internationals, but you’d still expect the Sharks to win a potential battle at Kings Park.

The Cheetahs and Lions face a tougher path to the Challenge Cup semifinals. Clermont beat the Stormers in France last season, and will be favourites against a Cheetahs side that lacks the resources of its Cape Town counterparts. If the Cheetahs do manage to claim an upset, they will travel to Montpellier or Ulster for a quarterfinal.

The Lions beat Racing 92 in the Challenge Cup playoff staged in Johannesburg last season, before losing to Glasgow Warriors in Scotland. If they surprise Benetton in Treviso this week, they will play Pau or Connacht in the quarterfinals. DM


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