Change is needed if SA teams are to compete in Champs cup
In the wake of a chastening weekend for South African rugby, a plethora of excuses were bandied about on social media to help explain the humbling defeats of the Stormers, Sharks and Lions in Europe’s top competitions.
According to most disgruntled tweeters, the long distance travel made winning on the road impossible. Less than ideal travelling conditions were blamed for stiffened limbs and clouded minds. Others pointed the finger at biased referees and partisan TV directors. Some complaints were directed at the rugby gods who were clearly against the Saffas, turning the sun’s glare directly into their faces.
I made that last one up. But a deep dive on social media would surely unearth a range of strange conspiracy theories and frothing hot takes. No sports fan enjoys it when their team loses but South African rugby supporters seem to feel the sting of a loss more than most.
But as the days have passed, and hangovers and tempers have abated, a more sober reading of the situation is possible. The simple truth is that the South Africans just weren’t good enough and quarterfinal exits are a fair indication of where they stand in the world’s premier club competition.
That needn’t be met with fatalism or passivity. The ambition is certainly there, with both Jon Dobson and Neil Powell declaring their intent to lift a title before they leave their posts at the Stormers and Sharks respectively. But change is needed. And if they are to realise their desire next season, certain factors must be addressed.
The first, and perhaps most obvious one, is that a South African team has to secure a home semi-final next season. As it was in Super Rugby, visiting sides, especially those who have to leg it halfway across the world, are always fighting an uphill battle.
The top three franchises in the country – the Stormers, Sharks and Bulls – all combined for a perfect record at home in Europe and proved more than capable of dispatching the continent’s finest on their own patch. However, once they were forced to make the corresponding journey north, they won just two games from a collective nine.
Next year’s restructured tournament might provide some assistance as the two bloated pools of 12 are set to be divided into more manageable groups. But the emphasis on winning at least once away from home during the opening round remains as this could ensure a smoother path through the knockouts.
Travel fatigue is not just a factor in EPCR events. The South Africans, like the rest of the teams in the URC, are effectively fighting on two disparate fronts throughout the year. There is nothing that can be done about this. After all, crisscrossing the globe, often with a layover in Doha en route to Europe, and regularly in cattle class, is what the power brokers at SA Rugby signed up for. But if the South African franchises are to have enough left in the tank for a possible season deciding game in France or England next year, they’ll need deeper squads.
That is not easily fixed. Comparatively smaller salary caps and squad sizes are two bugbears that have been raised by South African coaches before. The weak rand is a variable beyond their control but private investment might help address some shortcomings.
The Sharks, Bulls and Lions have all benefited from private equity funding. We’re yet to see the long term effects of this cash injection but it’s logical to assume that one consequence will be a much broader pool of players who can play in the URC, which will be pivotal as this would simultaneously allow the stars on each roster to rest up for more important fixtures as well as maintain their side’s position near the top of the domestic league. For an obvious case in point, look no further than Leinster.
But talent retention will perpetually remain a conundrum for South African sides. The allure of euros and yens will continue to be enticing carrots for those who can earn a fortune abroad which means South African teams should not only seek to bolster their ranks from within, but also recruit from foreign leagues.
The Bulls’ short term signing of Charlie Ewels could be a masterstroke as the Pretoria-based outfit looks to secure a place in the last eight of the URC. The England lock with 30 Test caps will enter a dressing room as the only non-South African player. Samoa’s Alapati Leiua is the only foreign player at the Stormers. The Sharks and Lions have a clutch of non-South Africans, but all are from the continent, including Dylan Richardson who was born in Pinetown just outside of Durban, but has since earned a cap for Scotland.
The point is that a diverse dressing room brings with it new ways of thinking. And a few shrewd recruits from some of Europe’s more established teams might also bring some know-how when it comes to winning crunch games at the business end of the Champions Cup.
Again, cold finances are a factor, and luring a marquee player down south without the promise of riches might take some doing, but if any of the South African teams can find a bit of extra cash down the sofa and pull off such a coup, they might yet find the missing ingredient needed for success.
That won’t help address the major obstacle facing South African teams which is the gruelling schedule they must endure. Unlike their European opponents in the URC, Top 14 and the Premiership, the Springboks who still ply their trade on home soil are effectively playing throughout the year as they move from the URC and the EPCR straight into the Rugby Championship in the South African winter.
There is no perfect solution. South Africa’s geographic location means it remains stranded in a sort of rugby purgatory. Neither here nor there. Too far away from its cousins across the Indian and Atlantic oceans in the southern hemisphere, but too far away from its newly adopted relatives in the same time zone to the north.
The Stormers’ success in the inaugural URC last season, and the strong showing from the Bulls who seemingly pulled off the impossible by beating Leinster in Dublin to reach the final, shows that wherever the South Africans play, and whatever the squads look like, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
But the Champions Cup is a step above what they’re used to. It is now unquestionably a tougher proposition than Super Rugby. And in order to avoid a scenario that played out alongside the franchises of Australia and New Zealand, where the Bulls’ three victories is all the country had to show for over 23 seasons, some alterations will be required.
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