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SA teams focus on URC after Euro irritation over Bulls’ benchwarmer squad in Champions Cup quarters

SA teams focus on URC after Euro irritation over Bulls’ benchwarmer squad in Champions Cup quarters
The Bulls were criticised for sending an under-strength team to England for the Champions Cup quarterfinals against Northampton. But it’s a practice that has happened for years in the competition. (Photo: Paul Harding/Getty Images)

The Bulls’ elimination from the Champions Cup didn’t go down without some grumbling in the north after coach Jake White sent a largely second-string team to play against Northampton in the quarterfinals.

For the Bulls and Stormers, their seasons are now narrowed to a singular focus in the United Rugby Championship (URC) after recent Champions Cup exits.

Both are in play-off position in the URC and have no further distractions but to throw all their resources at what is their primary competition.

But the Bulls’ elimination from the Champions Cup didn’t go down without some grumbling in the north after coach Jake White sent a largely second-string team to play against Northampton in the quarterfinals.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Jake White changes 14 for Bulls’ Champions Cup quarterfinal clash against Northampton Saints

They lost 59-22, which prompted Northampton bruiser and former England international Courtney Lawes to label the Bulls’ tactics “a carnival”.

“My take was it’s a very South African thing to do that whole carnival around it,” Lawes told former Scotland lock Jim Hamilton on the Rugby Pod.

“It was a great way of them taking the pressure off themselves and essentially putting it all on us.

“Disrupting us, getting us thinking different things and not quite on the ball and that’s what I was pretty wary of, to be honest. I was pretty disappointed that they didn’t put their best team out.”

Given the congested schedule and difficult travel schedule that saw the Bulls travel in four different parties (although the bulk of the group were on one business class flight), with a tight turnaround for this weekend’s URC match against Munster at Loftus, White had to prioritise.

Jake White, Champions Cup

Jake White, Director of Rugby of Bulls, during the Champions Cup quarterfinal against Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens. 13 April, 2024. (Photo: Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Unhappy

It has been reported that European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) bosses were unhappy with the Bulls’ approach, as they felt it devalued and undermined the tournament.

The Champions Cup is supposed to be the pinnacle of European competition. But the reality is that outrage over the Bulls’ decision was selective because Lyon, who met the Bulls in the round of 16 clash at Loftus earlier this month, left several of their top players at home too.

And French clubs in particular, have a history of employing precisely the same tactic as the Bulls, even before really long-haul flights to South Africa were part of the schedule.

There is a history of teams omitting key players from their squads for difficult away European ties where they believe they have little chance of winning.

In 2016 when Toulouse faced Bath Rugby, the French giants, historically a strong team in European competitions, decided to rest several key players for the away fixture in order to manage their squad’s workload and prioritise their domestic campaign.

This decision led to a debate about the importance of European competition versus domestic success.

That debate continued in the 2017-2018 season when Racing 92 faced Leicester Tigers away in the Champions Cup. Racing 92, like many clubs, made strategic squad rotations for certain away games to balance their efforts across multiple competitions.

Three weeks ago, Lyon clearly believed taking the Bulls down at Loftus, even with a full-strength side, was nearly impossible, and so chose to chance their arm with an under-strength team.

By contrast, La Rochelle, the 2022 and 2023 Champions Cup winners, sent a full-strength team to Cape Town to play the Stormers in the round of 16 on 6 April.

La Rochelle won 22-21 (an injury-time kick by Stormers flyhalf Manie Libbok in gale force winds sailed just wide), but paid the price the next week.

From Cape Town, La Rochelle went to Dublin to face Leinster in the quarterfinals, which was a repeat of the last two finals. Leinster thumped the battered and travel-weary La Rochelle 40-13.

La Rochelle, as defending champions, were duty bound to throw all their resources at clinging to their crown, but had they not been defending champions, would they have bothered to send their best side to Cape Town? It’s a moot point now, but it’s a problem the EPCR has to face up to.

And they are. There are already talks to ensure that the round of 16 and quarterfinals do not follow in back-to-back weeks.

That will help slightly, but with URC/Top14/English Premiership commitments usually following quickly after Champions or Challenge Cup dates, it’s always going to be a juggling act.

It will remain open to some, shall we say, manipulation by coaches depending on their priorities.

EPCR also has not secured a television deal in the United Kingdom from next season onwards, which is concerning. And having weakened teams contesting the knockout stages, as we saw with Lyon and the Bulls, does undermine their bargaining power.

But the fault can’t be placed at the door of the teams. They have limited playing resources and for South African teams, their priority is the URC, which is only in its third season.

In time, they might shift that priority, as Irish clubs such as Leinster have done and focus mainly on EPCR competitions, but for now URC success is the optimal goal.

Sharks

The Sharks are back in action against the Glasgow Warriors in the URC this weekend. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

URC focus

The Bulls are third on the URC standings with 45 points — nine points behind log leaders Leinster — with the fifth-placed Stormers on 39 points.

The Lions are in 11th spot, only one point behind the eighth-placed Ulster, with 34 points. All three sides will have their sights set on finishing in the best position as round 14 concludes this weekend.

The 13th placed Sharks cannot make the playoffs and face a tough encounter against the Glasgow Warriors.

But the KwaZulu-Natalians are high on confidence after qualifying for the EPCR Challenge Cup semi-final and are on a four-match winning streak.

The Lions also face a huge task against log-leaders Leinster, who have only suffered two defeats in the tournament this season to seven by the Joburgers, and they will be on a high after qualifying for the Investec Champions Cup semi-final last week.

Damian Willemse

Damian Willemse (seen here kicking) will be a key player for the Stormers for the remainder of the URC season. The Stormers meet Ospreys in Cape Town in round 14. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

Leinster have also left a few stalwarts at home for this tour with their sights set on European glory.

The Stormers welcome seventh-place Ospreys to South Africa this weekend in a game that will have huge implications on the race with just four points separating them in the standings.

Even more is on the line when the Bulls entertain reigning champions Munster at Loftus Versfeld as third and fourth respectively go toe-to-toe in a heavyweight battle. Just two points separate the pair in the standings.

The Bulls could climb back to 2nd this weekend if the Sharks can do them a favour against Glasgow who currently occupy that coveted spot in the table. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    Wow! Stop press; South Africa teams cheat and “Susie” is alive and well and the ghost of “Triomf Fetilisers” Louis Let, still holds sway!! Well I never! Whoever could imagine that?!!

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