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Stormers and Bulls success could go a long way to smoothing SA’s integration into Europe with strong Champions Cup displays

Stormers and Bulls success could go a long way to smoothing SA’s integration into Europe with strong Champions Cup displays
Stormers No 8 Evan Roos is tackled by La Rochelle's Paul Boudehent during the Investec Champions Cup match at DHL Stadium on 16 December 2023. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

The Investec Champions Cup is now a global competition, but this weekend the Stormers and Bulls need to show that it’s a good thing.

The rugby calendar may still be confusing South African fans as they come to grips with European schedules, in addition to a plethora of local rugby coming on stream in the more traditional winter season.

But this Saturday sees the first round of knockout matches in the Investec Champions Cup, which is the equivalent of soccer’s Champions League. It is part of European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), which also includes the secondary Challenge Cup. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA teams face moment of truth in Europe as Champions and Challenge Cups knockouts start

While the tournament, and the entire concept of EPCR, might feel new to most South Africans, it has a rich and colourful history in the professional era. It has also provided the backbone for the growth of northern hemisphere rugby. 

In the south, we have always been slightly dismissive of the strength of northern hemisphere rugby, based on Rugby World Cup results. That is a skewed view and at club level at least, the Champions Cup is elite. 

Irish clubs such as Munster and Leinster are among the best teams in the world. French giants Stade Rochelais (La Rochelle), winners of the past two editions of the Champions Cup, and five-time winners Toulouse, are magnificent teams. They come with history, passion and world-class players and coaches.

Manie Libbok in action against La Rochelle last December. He landed a match-winning conversion to give the Stormers a 21-20 victory. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

Some grumbling up north  

South Africa’s integration into European competition has not been without some grumbling from up north — and with some justification. What used to be a tournament confined to a relatively small geographical region has become global since the Bulls and Stormers and Sharks (in 2023) joined the competition. 

Which is why it’s imperative that at least one team, but hopefully both, of the Bulls and the Stormers, advances through the home round of 16 games this weekend.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Depth charge — Boks square up to huge year with a European litmus Test

South Africa’s two best teams need to show that they are not just making up numbers at the highest level of European rugby, but that they are realistic contenders. 

Both sides play attractive, rounded rugby, which anyone with a passing interest in the sport can identify. Yet, they need to show they are winners and that their place in the competition is adding value to the entire tournament. 

The shoots of that concept have probably already started to grow, but another few strong performances will further entrench the idea that despite the word “European” in the name, this is now truly a global competition. 

Janko Swanepoel of the Bulls during the Investec Champions Cup match against Lyon at Loftus Versfeld. (Photo: Lee Warren/Gallo Images)

Tough tests 

The Bulls and Stormers are into the last 16 and they face French clubs Lyon and La Rochelle respectively. The latter team is the reigning European champion, but early-season struggles meant only making it into the play-offs seeded tenth, ensuring an away clash against the Stormers.

It promises to be a brutal contest if La Rochelle’s Pool-stage encounter last December is anything to go by. On that occasion, the match was also played at DHL Stadium in Cape Town, which was probably the deciding factor in an almighty battle. 

The Stormers edged it 21-20 with a late try from hooker Andre-Hugo Venter, and a touchline conversion from Manie Libbok. The French side, under fiery Irish coach Ronan O’Gara, will certainly tap into the memories of that outcome as part of its motivation for the knockout contest. 

O’Gara’s side has also hit a good vein of form recently, which the team underlined with a 23-3 win over French Top 14 leaders Stade Francais, and followed that with a 40-21 win over Oyannax Rugby. 

Although both sides have injury concerns in the front row – La Rochelle is missing Reda Wardi, Pierre Bourgarit and Georges-Henri Colombe, while the Stormers are without Sti Sithole, Ali Vermaak, Kwenzo Blose and Lizo Gqoboka – there is abundant talent everywhere. 

The French outfit has a monstrous pack and is staffed with skilful backline players including decorated French centre Jonathan Danty.

Undefeated Stormers as favourites 

The Stormers though are undefeated at home this season and must start as marginal favourites on that basis alone. Centre Damian Willemse respects the French side but was confident in what his team is capable of doing in this cutthroat contest. 

“La Rochelle have got a great attack and a very balanced game. They can kick, they have big forwards who can take you physically, but so do we,” Willemse said. 

“I think our pack has shown what we can do over the course of the season.”

Willemse wasn’t reading too much into their previous match either. 

“That was a pool game, but this is a round-of-16 game. There is going to be pressure and there are going to be tight moments,” he said. 

“They obviously have a bit more experience than us in terms of playing this competition, but we are just controlling this moment and making sure we are ready, come Saturday.

“When we played them in December it was largely different teams. Our players had just come back from the World Cup, their players had just come back from the World Cup, and there was a very different dimension for them and us. 

“It’s a knockout game and we’re expecting Test-level intensity. They’re the back-to-back champions of Europe and they’ll want to bring their intensity and make a statement, but we won’t sit back and wait for them. We’ll take the challenge to them.” DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pierre Marais says:

    Why is there no analysis of the Bulls / Lyon match?

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Don’t be so negative Craig! The SA teams have already proved their worth, and with the huge crowds attracted it can only get better. Fair enough, there needs to be a bit more ‘bedding in’ – ESPECIALLY in regards to the ridiculous travelling arrangements for the Stormers (surely Qatar could organize some charter type direct flights with a modified Premium Economy – at least! – seating to suit huge players) – but it can only get better and better. Having spent a lot of time in the UK in the last 25 years I can tell you that the Heineken – now Investec – games were always the highlight of the season (better than any of the boring jetlagged so-called ‘super’ rugby in the SH) and will hopefully get even better. Our teams with them. IMHO these are exciting times for rugby union, especially ours, now we’re away from the suffocating rugby league tendencies of the Antipodeans.

  • Rae Earl says:

    All these North/South games are worth watching. TV coverage is excellent and the encounters are brutally physical and fast moving. Crowd participation is
    0utstanding and atmosphere in the stadiums is right up to test match levels. The referees control the games with iron discipline and no-nonsense attitudes, essential requirements in a field of 30 men doing major battle.

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