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The players set to profit from Wales' new gameplan

With the Pivac era now a distant memory, Warren Gatland has a rich seam of talent to select from in the Six Nations

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Joe Marler remarks won't earn him any new fans in South Africa

By Daniel Gallan
Harlequins' Joe Marler during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby match between Harlequins and Leicester Tigers at Twickenham Stadium on October 16, 2022 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images)

Joe Marler had a twinkle in his eye. With a medal round his chest for his player of the match display in Harlequins’ 19-13 win in Bath, he was giving a trademark performance with BT Sport’s Sarra Elgan Easterby. A bit of wit, a pinch of self-deprecation, a handful of bants. Classic Joe.

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Then the conversation turned to his team’s 11, 826 mile round trip to Durban to take on the Sharks in their opening game of this season’s European Rugby Champions Cup.

“You want to talk about Europe and we’re going to Natal Sharks next week,” Marler said, emphasising the word ‘Natal’ with an incredulous tone. His eyebrows raised, his eyes wide, the man could scarcely conceive of such a ridiculous notion.

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He continued with a question: “Which is where?” Elgan Easterby answered with an awkward chuckle: “In South Africa”. Marler leaned back and with a self-satisfied expression reiterated the point. “In South Africa,” he proclaimed, as if he’d just told a colleague that their fly was down.

To be fair to Marler, his demeanour shifted when he spoke of a planned visit to a local orphanage. KwaZulu-Natal, to give the province its proper name, has endured an almost Biblically turbulent two years. Plague, floods, blackouts and enough political assassinations to fill the Books of Samuel have contributed to a ubiquitously despondent mood. Once again, rugby can act as a tonic.

But that was not the main takeaway from Marler’s post-match tête-à-tête. He encapsulated a sentiment that has been percolating ever since it was announced that the top five South African unions (or, if you’d prefer, franchises) will be competing in Europe’s premier club competitions.

Of course, Marler might have been play-acting for the cameras. He is, after all, a showman and understands better than most players that the spectacle is enhanced when it is filled with enigmatic characters. But by poking a pressure point he simultaneously touched a nerve.

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Writing for the Daily Mail in February this year, Sir Clive Woodward said it would be “brainless” to allow South Africa to join the hallowed halls of European rugby. He was referring to the Six Nations, but the overall attitude of his think-piece smacked of old-world elitism.

He had no such qualms with European clubs using South African muscle in order to elevate the standard of the continent’s game. Nor has he raised a stink after every European nation selected players with thick South African accents. As many as 27 of them have lifted the Champions Cup with 41 contesting the final since 1996. Was it brainless, Sir Clive, to include them?

This apprehension, though widespread, is not universal. A cursory glance across social media channels and below the line comment sections shows that there is enough goodwill from fans – the people who matter more than one Knight of the Realm – that is fuelled by more than curiosity. It would appear that this extra variable from Africa’s southern tip has been largely welcomed.

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This column is for the optimists. It is for those who understand that borders are arbitrary and that continents are simply constructs of the mind. I’ve written previously on the angst emanating from certain pundits who’d prefer to see tradition trump progress. Much of their scepticism is rooted in a previous age where moustachioed imperialists divided the globe with rulers on a map. Did anyone stop to ask the important questions? What is Europe? What is a hemisphere? Why do we even need passports?

Not that the South African teams will be poring over such debates, nor will they pay any attention to the doubters and cynics. They’ll be desperate to prove they belong. They’re entering uncharted territory. What’s more, they know it.

The noise coming from the teams themselves has been muted. The Bulls’ coach, Jake White, has already equated the Champions Cup to Test rugby and has warned his countrymen not to be naive to the challenges they face.

White’s counterpart at the Stormers, John Dobson, said that he wanted his team to do themselves “justice” by giving an accurate account of themselves for this “special occasion”. The Sharks winger, Yaw Penxe, spoke of a “buzz” around Durban as they gear up for a clash against a Harlequins team skippered by a former Shark in Stephan Lewies.

Any prediction at this point is almost meaningless. The French clubs might continue their habit of fielding weakened teams for away trips and could further strip back their arsenal on the road when asked to make the long journey down to South Africa. This may prove helpful for the competition’s newbies and their push for a place in the knockout rounds.

Whether by luck or merit, all three all three heavy hitters will be aiming for the quarterfinals at least. If only the bookies gave them much hope of doing so.

According to one betting company, 13 other teams are ahead of them on the pecking order. Leinster, Toulouse, Saracens and the reigning champions, La Rochelle, lead the way ahead of a clutch of seasoned French, Irish and English teams. That may change after the first round and a few resounding wins, but this is a sign that success in the United Rugby Championship doesn’t necessarily equate to success in what is now unquestionably the toughest assignment in club rugby.

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The Stormers win in the inaugural URC will help ease whatever nerves might exist. That unexpected triumph was supplemented by the Bulls’ semi-final victory over Leinster in Dublin, arguably the most impressive result by a South African club team in the professional era. Along with a Springboks laden Sharks team, the South Africans will walk lightly but carry a big stick.

The Lions and Cheetahs have been lumped together in the same group in the Challenge Cup and will themselves be targeting a place in the final eight. Anything beyond that would be considered a bonus.

The South Africans must now do something they’ve never done before and compete across two hostile fronts. Cardiff’s win over the Sharks proves that the URC can’t be treated lightly and now the old powers in Europe will want to put the South Africans in their place. They in turn will want to show that their place is right here in ‘Europe’, whatever that means.

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