Sport

CHAMPIONS CUP

Pesky Saffas are in European club rugby to stay, despite grumbles from the North

Pesky Saffas are in European club rugby to stay, despite grumbles from the North
Khutha Mchunu of the Bulls breaks past a tackle during the Champions Cup. (Photo: Dan Mullan / Getty Images)

South Africa’s presence in European club rugby competitions has upset some commentators in the northern hemisphere.

The biggest game in club rugby will be staged at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on 25 May and will feature Leinster and Toulouse – arguably the two strongest and most well-resourced teams on the planet.

Will it be third time lucky for Leinster, who have travelled to the previous two deciders and returned empty handed? The Irish giants have set the standard in Europe for the better part of a decade, but haven’t won a Champions Cup title since 2017.

French clubs have dominated this tournament for the past three seasons and Toulouse – with talisman Antoine Dupont back in tow – will be gunning for yet another trophy. Success in London may provide the French rugby community with some consolation after the national side bombed out of its home World Cup last year.

On the outside, looking in

Here in South Africa, we can only look on as these titans compete for the biggest prize in club rugby.

The Springboks are four-time world champions and clearly have the formula to win big tournaments. As far as the club game is concerned, the local franchises trail their European counterparts by some distance.

When the top South African franchises moved to Europe in 2021, local fans dared to dream that a Champions Cup final between the Bulls and Leinster or the Stormers and Toulouse might play out in the near future.

As it’s happened, no South African side has progressed beyond the quarterfinals over the past two seasons.

Unless something changes with regard to the scheduling and resultant travel demands, South Africa’s top teams – and a host of European clubs that lack the wealth and resources of Leinster and several others – will continue to make up the numbers.

Many have pointed out that weakened teams and inflated scorelines are a bad look for a tournament that styles itself as the best in the world.

But when a club is competing across two major competitions over 10 months, traversing the equator regularly and losing Test players to international duty or resting protocols for weeks at a time, it surely can’t be expected to field its best side, or produce a world-class performance, every single Saturday.

Grumbles in the media

Several British media commentators have offered up a solution: kick South Africa out of Europe.

For those who missed the argument, it suggests that the player management and travel demands were less of a challenge when the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers were focused solely on the United Rugby Championship (URC) in the 2021-22 season.

Fewer games, fewer problems? No kidding.

European club rugby Stormers

Manie Libbok of the Stormers receives the ball. (Photo: EJ Langner / Gallo Images / Getty Images)

One particularly condescending op-ed strongly suggested that South Africa should concentrate on the Currie Cup and stow all ambitions of Champions Cup glory. Stopping just short of saying “get off my lawn”, the writer called for a return to the good old days, before the pesky Saffas came to town.

To be fair, a lot of rugby people in the northern hemisphere have recognised the value that South Africa teams have added over the past few seasons.

No less a luminary than Leinster coach Leo Cullen is among those who believe that the intensity, physicality and skill of these teams have added another dimension to the respective competitions.

And as far as the call for a return to the “good old days” is concerned, the Champions Cup was in dire need of restructuring long before the South African teams joined the tournament in 2022.

The format has been an issue for some time, and recent tweaks and changes have done more harm than good to the integrity of the competition.

The scheduling in relation to the respective domestic tournaments has also been a point of debate. Now there is talk about adding a Club Rugby World Cup to the calendar in 2028.

It’s hard to see how an additional tournament is going to result in less squad rotation or fewer one-sided scorelines, or mitigate player welfare concerns. More games lead to more problems.

Schedule needs a rethink

Can top teams, such as the Bulls and Stormers, go head to head with Leinster or Toulouse and win a Champions Cup final?

Given the opportunity to prepare adequately for such a fixture, or the chance to give a Champions Cup campaign the respect and attention it deserves, they would certainly give those galácticos a run for their money.

At the moment, there are simply too many off-field challenges that prevent these teams from realising their potential.

The South African Rugby Union is set to become a shareholder in the tournament, which means the franchises are unlikely to be booted out of Europe anytime soon. Progress is also unlikely, though, as the present situation is unsustainable, with top players at risk of physical and mental burnout.

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

A global season would solve some of the problems at club level. If the Rugby Championship is moved to the Six Nations window – which is mooted for 2026 – then South Africans and other affected players would enjoy a dedicated off-season in August.

As things stand, Test players compete year-round and the South African franchises are mandated to rest these stars for at least eight weeks over the course of a 10-month club season.

For now, South African fans will have to content themselves with watching Jacques Nienaber – the double World Cup winner at the helm of Leinster – flying the flag at the biggest club show on Earth.

The Sharks will face Gloucester in the Challenge Cup final on 24 May. If the Sharks win that clash in London, they will automatically qualify for the next edition of the Champions Cup. That qualification, rather than the actual trophy, remains their primary objective.

Bulls carry South Africa’s URC hopes

Meanwhile, it is still undecided where the other three franchises will finish up in the third instalment of the URC.

The Bulls look set to host a quarterfinal before travelling north for a potential semifinal and final. The Stormers are likely to travel for all potential playoffs. The Lions will be hard-pressed to win their remaining league fixtures and qualify for the final eight.

One of these teams may spring a surprise and beat the odds, as the Stormers did when they won the inaugural URC title in 2022.

It’s more likely, however, that the local franchises will end the club season without any major silverware. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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  • Bonzo Gibbon says:

    Nearly all the grumbles have come from the right wing English press, those guys who promoted Brexit and are suspicious of anything foreign. Do British clubs have more of a moral right to play against European clubs than SA franchises? SA is far from other major rugby countries. New Zealand was pretty much the same distance as France and Italy, but travelling to Europe does not involve the big time differences, so it makes sense. The URC has been of great benefit both financially and from a rugby point of view to Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian rugby. England is not involved in the URC. Do they really think they can accept all teams from the URC into the Champions Cup except SA ones?

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Ah, but BG, you mustn’t forget they created the game and still think they should win every game because of that. And for the Boks to thrash them twice in the last two RWCs is way too much to stand.
      They’re even worse in their own country, where the Posh Boys (public school) still rule the roost, which is why a lot of Welsh players had to go and play professional rugby league (and we in SA were badly affected too) because those same Posh bliksems kept the game amateur until 1995! Detestable people.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “Unless something changes with regard to the scheduling and resultant travel demands, South Africa’s top teams – and a host of European clubs that lack the wealth and resources of Leinster and several others – will continue to make up the numbers.”

    The main problem for our teams is the travelling. At least it’s not combined with jetlag like the daft Super Rugby back in the old days, but when you hear that it takes 30 hours to get to some Irish games it’s ridiculous. Frankly, the Qatar connection needs to be fixed – can’t they organise some direct charters with decent legroom?!

    When you see – as I did – the Lyon team going back from Joburg in BA business class you really wonder which idiots organised the SA teams travel!

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