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'That's bananas': Irish legend gobsmacked by Stormers' travel plan

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images)

Brian O’Driscoll couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing last Sunday when listening in from the BT Sport studio to what match commentator Nick Mullins was saying about the onerous travel plan the Stormers were set to undertake to ensure they could fulfil their next two matches. Having travelled from Cape Town at the start of the new year to box-tick a January 8 URC assignment at Glasgow, Stormers defeated London Irish seven days later to enhance their Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 qualification prospects.

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With their two-game UK tour over, it was here that the logistics were about to become incredibly exhaustive for the reigning URC champions. This Saturday, Stormers have another Champions Cup pool match to play, this time at home in Cape Town versus Clermont, before they again quickly commute north in order to fulfil their January 27 URC game in Ireland versus Ulster.

It’s an itinerary that bowled over the legendary Irishman. “It was Nick Mullins who brought up what the Stormers’ next route is,” said O’Driscoll, chatting to RugbyPass ahead of this weekend’s round four European matches.

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“Their travel plan over the next fortnight: Heathrow, Dublin, Doha, Jo’burg, Cape Town, play Clermont; Cape Town, Jo’burg, Doha, Dublin, drive to Belfast, play Ulster, drive to Dublin, Doha, Jo’burg, Cape Town. That is bananas.

“Talking about player welfare: Okay, they don’t have to fly out of (many) time zones, but we have got to look at the scheduling. A little bit of that is obviously their relationship with Qatar Airlines, having to fly through Doha and all that carry on, but in the long-term that is another reason for the South Africans to lose a little interest because it will just take the good out of their ability to play against the best teams in Europe.”

Away from the eye-watering Stormers travel schedule, O’Driscoll is a fan of seeing the South African teams take part in the Champions Cup. Collectively, the Stormers, the Sharks and the Bulls have won seven of their nine pool matches so far with the unbeaten Sharks qualified for the round of 16 and the Stormers and the Bulls on the cusp of joining them this weekend.

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“They have been a really good inclusion in the URC and once they get their feet under the table as well in Europe, they will get a better sense as to what they need to do,” reckoned O’Driscoll. “The format at the moment probably suits them a little bit where some of them haven’t sent their strongest teams away from home but yet they will be very tough to beat in South Africa… You will see all three in the last 16.”

If there is a downside to all the Champions Cup changes in recent years, it’s that the current pool stage doesn’t seem to be as intensely competitive. Previously, when all teams had to play six group matches and just eight qualified for the quarter-finals, the margin for error was minimal. Now, with the two pools of twelve format scheduling teams to play just four games each before 16 clubs advance to the round-of-16 knockout stage, there is the possibility that teams could advance this weekend having won just one of their four recent matches.

“I’m so mindful I’m not here to bash it,” said O’Driscoll, a three-time Heineken Cup winner with Leinster. “Has it lost a little bit of its mystique and energy? If you are honest it has, but you have to understand the circumstances we found ourselves with this format. It’s a covid format. We have had one year of it and will know a lot more after year two.

“Having teams limp into the knockout stages having won one game out of four doesn’t feel right. I just think in Europe’s elite competition you don’t want it to be easy to limp into any knockout phase. Dominic McKay (the EPCR chairman) came on Rugby Tonight a few weeks ago and he spoke candidly that they are exploring all options. Also, the South African teams coming in is a new dimension to it.

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“We will fall back into a format pretty soon that is going to be a little more challenging, a bit less inclined to be able to pick and choose which games you will be able to go for and which ones you hold back. To pick and chose second-string teams because you don’t fancy a game doesn’t feel like Europe’s elite competition.”

  • BT Sport is the home of the Heineken Champions Cup. Tune in Saturday, January 21, for Leinster vs Racing 92 at 3pm exclusively live on BT Sport 2 bt.com/sport/rugby-union

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