Jake White's radical idea to make South Africa a Champions Cup force
Bulls boss Jake White has claimed a radical rethink must happen if teams from South Africa are to dominate in the Heineken Champions Cup. Three franchises – including White’s own club – took part in this season’s 24-team tournament for the first time and while all three progressed to the round-of-16 after the pool stages, only two made it to the quarter-finals and none will play in the semi-finals at the end of April.
Top 14 giants Toulouse knocked out the Bulls and the Sharks on successive weekends in France while the Premiership-based Exeter picked off the Stormers in their last-eight encounter last Saturday in England.
The demise of the South African challenge has resulted in a general disappointment that its teams don’t have the strength in depth that its European-based rivals have and White claimed that this imbalance won’t be rectified unless a major decision is taken about eligibility to play for the Springboks.
The 2007 World Cup-winning coach believes that far too many Test players currently play overseas and he wants the regulation to be amended so that if someone wants to play for South Africa, they must play for a local club rather than earn their wage in France, England, Japan and so on.
White was speaking ahead of this weekend’s URC/Currie Cup double-header for the Bulls which sees them in URC action on Saturday versus Zebre Parma in Johannesburg after taking on the Sharks in the Currie Cup in Durban the day before.
Asked how the South African franchises can become more competitive at Champions Cup level, White said: “We can only do that if we can keep all the best players in South Africa and the way we do that is to make sure that any player who plays abroad is not eligible to play for South Africa. That is the only way.
“If we want to save the domestic game and we want to save the franchises in South Africa and you want to compete at that level, once you put your name down to play in the Heineken Cup you have to beat La Rochelle away, you have to beat Saracens away or you have to beat Toulouse away – then you have to have the best players here.
“I said it to a French journalist last week when I was in Toulouse, we had three teams in the round-of-16 and if you look at the rest of the teams, look at the players out of Leinster, Leicester, Sale, Ulster, there is probably another three teams there of quality players. You have got guys like Jasper Wiese, Duane Vermeulen, Jason Jenkins, I mean the list goes on and on and on and on. That means that we probably could have six teams in the top 16.
“Now once you put those six teams into four teams (in South Africa) then all of a sudden everything changes. Then you have the ability to actually compete against those best teams (like Toulouse). The way it is now you have got 300 professional players playing aboard and some of them are the best players in our country – you just have to look at the make-up of the national team. That just proves that we need those guys back in South Africa. There is no other way you can do it.
“People debate with me about money, but it can’t be about money. It has got to be about the desire to be a Springbok and the desire to play international rugby because, as I said, if you are wearing a provincial hat, you can’t have a situation where all the best players are playing (overseas). I mean we go and play Duane Vermeulen, who is at Ulster, and it’s bizarre. He could have been playing for the Bulls.
“That is the way forward. I know you are not going to keep everybody but if you get 50 per cent of those guys back and you put them into the franchises, all of a sudden the franchises get better, the Currie Cup teams get better and it filters all the way down. Then you don’t have a watered-down Currie Cup; you don’t have a team in URC that maybe will be okay but the problem is you can’t go the next step up.
“I genuinely think that if the influx of those players come in, make the four regions very strong, they can compete in Heineken Cup and then it means at URC they will also be very strong which means they should all try and make the Champions Cup.
“Then you go down one level and all the players would have an opportunity to play in the Currie Cup and the Currie Cup would also have some sort of kudos and credence in South Africa.”
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