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'It serves them well to have us...' - SA teams have improved Europe

By Daniel Gallan
Stormers's Damian Willemse (R) is tackled while trying to make a break during the European Rugby Champions Cup, Pool 4 Rugby Union match between Stormers and Stade Rochelais (La Rochelle) at the DHL Stadium in Cape Town on December 16, 2023. (Photo by Gianluigi Guercia / AFP) (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images)

“There’s more chance of England winning a World Cup now that South African teams are playing in Europe.” If anyone needs a stout defence for the reorganisation of the Champions Cup, the above line by John Dobson is a good place to start.

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The Stormers coach has plenty more to say on the subject. He bristles at what he calls the “myopic views” of European rugby fans and journalists who “don’t give South Africans the respect they deserve”. He has listened to podcasts calling for the annexation of the South Africans from the United Rugby Championship and read articles dripping with nostalgia for the old Heineken Cup.

So, when asked to land a few blows in the other direction, he is more than willing.

“Look, I have sympathy for anyone who feels nostalgic for the old format,” he says. “You know, four groups of four, home and away games, into the quarter-finals and so on. But correct me if I’m wrong, the Heineken Cup was turning into a convoluted and confusing tournament before the South Africans joined. It’s not like things got messy once we arrived.

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WATCH as Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White gives his take on the suggestion that South Africa should join the Six Nations

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WATCH as Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White gives his take on the suggestion that South Africa should join the Six Nations

“That old format was brilliant. And there were great moments. Martin Williams’ miss. Neil Back’s hand in the scrum. It’s such a wonderful competition and to be a part of it is a dream. It’s incredible and for me it’s the ultimate goal. It’s how we’ll be judged. But I have less sympathy for anyone who believes we’re devaluing it or who’d prefer to have weaker sides in it.”

Dobson points out that, before the fourth round of the Champions Cup, no northern hemisphere-based side had won a game in South Africa from 11 attempts. Double winners La Rochelle, English champions Saracens and a host of other famous clubs have made the journey south and been beaten.

“It serves them well to have us,” Dobson adds. “The Springboks have won four World Cups from eight attempts because they know how to scrum, how to maul. They treat every breakdown like a battle and they do the hard graft. The European teams getting exposed to that will help them.

“If you go look at what Super Rugby now looks like, there is no way that product is comparable or that it’s producing the same quality players that it used to when the South African teams were there. It’s a shortsighted view to want to get rid of the South African teams.”

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Not that Dobson feels entitled to a place at the top of table of what he calls “the best domestic competition in world rugby”. He says he feels “obligated” to perform well, even if that means sacrificing URC matches.

“It’s imperative that the South African teams come to the party,” he continues. “Last season, we went to Exeter in the quarterfinals, and it was a good achievement to reach the quarterfinals in our first season, but we got blown away at Sandy Park [42-17].

“We had Munster at home the next weekend in the URC. What I could have done is have seven or eight guys waiting for Munster in Cape Town. But I didn’t. Instead we travelled back via Qatar and lost a 21-game home record.

“It’s a testament to the strength of both competitions that I don’t feel that we’re good enough yet to compete in both.”

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Success on the pitch would also bring more engagement from fans, a crucial variable in the wider acceptance of South African teams in the competition. Half-full stadiums have given the impression that South African supporters aren’t all that bothered.

“It’s about education,” Dobson says. “We need to emphasise the great occasion that is the Champions Cup. We get that through with the local derbies. When the Bulls come to Cape Town there is a sense of occasion. But when La Rochelle came, I got the feeling that not enough people recognised how good they are.

“We need to convey the message that this is the pinnacle. But I think that also means teams need to stop selecting weakened squads for away games. I get that some might do so for cross-continental matches. But when teams are crossing the Irish Sea or the Channel with weakened teams, well, what message does that send? It’s not just the South Africans who need to start showing that this competition matters more than any other.”

To rectify this, Dobson has called for change in the way the competition is structured. He wants it to be “more elite” with fewer teams. “That way you can’t cross the Severn Bridge with a B team. Because if you do, you might get knocked out early.”

A published author of two books with a third on the way – “that’ll come only after I’ve retired from the game” – Dobson has a flair for the narrative and is leaning into a compelling fiction that he hopes will become real.

He has commissioned a graphic designer to produce a mock poster for an imagined Champions Cup final: Toulouse vs Stormers. That idealised dream has been stuck on the team’s dressing room wall.

“I’ve told them that we’ll get there one day,” Dobson says. “That’s the goal. All the players have bought into this. I’ve told them, “Chaps, these are the times of our lives.

“When we were training at the Lensbury, or playing against Leicester at Welford Road, or travelling to Paris, this is what it’s all about, man. This is so special. Never would I have imagined a team from Western Province would be going to these pillars of rugby culture. It’s incredible. We want to win it so bad. We might not do it this year, but we’re getting closer.”

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